My Bicycling Adventure

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Philippines Visaya Islands: Part 1

Christmas Break - Atmosphere Resort

Waiting for Santa 
We flew from Ho Chi Minh via Manila to Dumaguete on Negros in the Philippines. For the next three weeks we stayed with oldest son Simon, and his wife Emma at our holiday apartment at Atmosphere Resort.

The resort sponsors a soup kitchen in a nearby village. On the last day of term the children had a surprise visit from Santa and a special Christmas dinner.

Emma cooked us a wonderful Christmas dinner.

The excitement (and alcohol) was just too much for some...

The kids soon got bored with the presents and then the "big" kids took over...

New Year's eve continued in a similar vein with a lot of drinking and making merry.  Everyone wanted to sample Bigs' shots.

Before we knew it it was time to be off again....

Maayong Tubig to Antulang Beach - 25km

Family and friends, Atmosphere

After a break from cycling of more than 4 weeks and all the excesses of Christmas and New Year we decided the first day back on the road should be a short one. It was past 10am before we hit the road and the short ride up the rough and bumpy Atmosphere drive was enough to cause a bit of panting.

Like most of the islands of the Philippines the main road runs around the coast and here, about 25km south of the capital Dumaguete, it is quite busy. The traffic consists of Ceres buses which travel fast and expect total subservience from all other road users, moderate sized lorries carrying sugar cane to the refineries, jeepneys  and motor trikes. Bicycles are unusual but gradually gaining popularity. With the Philippines flags  that Simon and Emma had given to us for Christmas fastened to the back racks we were constantly greeted and waved at by everyone we passed.
Bit of a crush, Malatapay market

After 7km is the village of Malatapay which holds it's famous bartering market every Wednesday morning. We have been there before but the busy, bustling mayhem of the place is magic. Vehicles of all sizes struggle to drive between the market stalls carrying their cargo of live animals to the livestock market. Pigs, goats and cattle in lorries, on tricycles, lashed to the rack of a motorbike  or just led on foot with a rope harness. The highlight of the morning is the delicious roast pig (lechon) cooked whole on a spit and served in chunks with steamed rice. After only 30 minutes riding we were sitting down for a feast.
Koo Koo's nest jetty

From there it was only another 6km of flat tarmac before the turn off to Bonbonon Bay. This is mostly an unsurfaced road with a few cemented sections. It is well graded and shaded with tall trees. There are several short steep climbs and descents but the last one, up to the top of the headland and Koo Koo's nest is the steepest with a loose stone surface and we had to push up the last section.
Koo Koo's nest beach

The resort is beautiful with just a few bamboo cottages built on stilts on the beach, a restaurant and a small dive shop. We spent the afternoon relaxing, snorkeling and wading round the rocky headland with the resident resort dogs. Unfortunately Steve slipped on a rock and dropped the camera into the sea. It died instantly.

Antulang Beach to Bayawan - 70km

From the resort we returned along the track for 4km to rejoin the unsurfaced road which continues around the bay. The morning was cool and cloudy with slight drizzle and the dirt road climbed up and down through forest and palms. There was hardly any traffic but plenty of people on foot.

 At the village of Bonbonon we passed the ruin of an old convent and then rejoined the main road. It rolled gently up and down but the wind in our faces made it seem harder work. The next town was Siaton and for the first time we missed Vietnam where there is always a cafe serving glasses of iced coffee with a shady seat. We had to be content with a bottle of Pepsi and a straw. The streets here were busy but the majority of the traffic was bicycle cabs so it was much more peaceful.

The 'Boulevard"

From here the road was significantly quieter with just the occasional Ceres bus and motorbikes.  There were a few rolling hills to climb around Gillgaon Point but then the road was flat all the way to Bayawan. This town claims to have the longest beach side boulevard in Negros but it has no other tourist infrastructure.

 There was a small hotel near the bus station, advertising  a range of rooms at different prices. The receptionist told us that all the rooms were full except for the most expensive 'suite' room so we booked that. Don't be misled, it wasn't luxurious, it just had a settee and two small armchairs as well as the bed. We never saw or heard another guest.

Bayawan to Punta Ballo, Sipalay - 88km

The hotel breakfast was served in the Internet cafe next door on a little table in the middle of the lines of computers and monitors. The typical Philippine breakfast consists of cold rice, cold fried egg and either fish, ham or beef (cold, of course). We had to pay extra because we wanted a cup of coffee, no drink was included.
We set off along the wide, impressive boulevard, a dual-carriageway with grand lamp-posts. The tide was out and the large fishing boats were stranded on the pale sand.  After 750m  it stopped abruptly in a heap of earth and we had to do a u-turn and return to the main road. The sky was clear today so it was much hotter, but there was still a cooling breeze.

 Heading north we had a few more rolling hills to climb on smooth tarmac with only light  traffic. About 20km north of  Bayawan we passed a beach resort called Fantasea which looked like a good, budget place to stay.

The next town was Santa Catalina where we had a morning break. Beyond that there were major roadworks. The road was being concreted. Several sections were complete and they were wide and silky smooth with the luxury of a hard-shoulder. Between these the surface was very rough and loose. All of the river bridges were being replaced. It was quite hard work in the hot sun but with little motor traffic it was bearable. Once back on the smoother surfaced road we noticed that one of Karen's rear spokes had broken, another repair needed.
Campomanes Bay
In the early afternoon we came across the first reasonable restaurant/bar at the roadside and pulled in for a drink. There was a party of about eight cyclists there with a guide, doing a 2 week supported ride around Cebu and Negros organised by Bugoy Bikers in Cebu. We chatted to them for a while but they were travelling in the opposite direction so we parted. It was only 25km now to Sipalay  and a  310m hill to climb on the way. The compensation was in the fabulous views over Campomanes Bay on the way up.

At Sipalay we felt we were almost finished so had a beer in one of the cafes on the beach while we telephoned  Artistic Diving, a resort at the Punta Ballo beach. When we asked her, the receptionist assured us that the road there was 'just a bit up and down' but nothing too bad. After a beer, the 7km of steep hills and descents felt more like crossing the Alps. To make matters worse, it poured with rain the whole way so we arrived bad-tempered, muddy and soaking.

The beautiful beach and lovely resort made all the suffering worthwhile and we enjoyed a few more beers and a delicious meal in the restaurant watching the continuing rain.

Punta Ballo - Day Off
Artistic Diving   

The weather was better today and Steve did two enjoyable dives while Karen did some snorkeling. It was warm and sunny and we enjoyed chatting to the other guests, mainly German and Swiss. One couple, Matt and Karen, had spent the last 10 years running a dive resort in the Maldives and were in Negros getting a feel for the diving before considering buying a dive resort near Dumaguete. Maybe we'll meet them later. Steve also had time to replace Karen's spoke and re-balance her wheel.

Sipalay to Kahankaka - 83km

Knowing there were a few hills on the road out of Sipalay we decided to hire a tricycle to take us from the resort into town. With the bikes lashed on the back and our gear stuffed around our feet we enjoyed the steep hills and views that we had missed because of the rain. In Sipalay we brought new lube for the rusty bike chains and searched in vain for an ATM.

The road north was smooth and quiet, just the occasional motorbike. There were more hills as we approached the top of the 'heel' of Negros. The gradient was gentle and levelled out regularly. It was only about 150m high but the lovely sweeping descent on the other side was a joy. The villages we rode through were friendly and neat but they were poor with few shops or places to eat. Just as we were about to loose hope of lunch there was a little bamboo shack at the roadside overlooking the sea. It was called 'Little Shamrock'  and promised coffee and food. It was actually owned by a Dutch man, married to a Philippine lady and they had only started trading 2 weeks ago. His wife served us some traditional chicken soup with vegetables and rice. It was delicious and we wished them luck with their business.

Sugar cane is the most abundant crop in this area with vast fields of tall green canes. It is a very labour intensive harvest with gangs of men cutting the cane by hand with machete type knives. Then it is all loaded by hand into large high sided lorries to be transported to the refineries.

From here it was a level ride all the way to Kahankaka. The town was holding its annual music festival and tonight was the climax. Unfortunately it meant that a lot of the accommodation was fully booked but we found a nice, newish place called West Side Inn with a vacant room. That night we were so tired that we just walked to the nearest restaurant, ate and went back to bed. We just couldn't face the throng and noise of the festival.

Kahankaka to Bago - 80km

Himamaylan Church
It was not a pleasant ride today. We were now into the more intensive agricultural and industrial part of Negros and the road was busy and noisy. There was only a rough hard shoulder and the buses here hunted in packs. Usually in threes, the Ceres buses would come up behind at great speed. The first one would pull out just enough to pass but the two behind were travelling so close that they couldn't see the bikes so we had to drop onto the rough several times. It was hot and there was a head wind.

The plan was to get a ferry over to the small  island of Guimares, which lies between Negros and Panay. We wanted to get one from Valladolid but we arrived about 12md and the daily ferry had departed at 10am. A tricycle driver advised us  to continue on to Pulupandan, where there were 'frequent ferries'. But actually  there were only two a day and the last one had left an hour ago. An elderly local pointed us in the direction of a small boat yard which could rent us a private bangka. The problem was that it would cost  2,000 pesos, compared with  200 for the ferry.

We decided to continue into Bago for the night and return to get on the 7.30am ferry the next day. There was only one place to stay in Bago. Called   'L E Pension', it occupied the second floor of a small shopping centre and took a lot of finding.

Bago to Iloilo (Panay) - 35km + ferry

Today was one of those days when it seems the whole World is ganging up on you to make life difficult. The room in the pension had no outside window so we set the alarm for 6am so that we would have plenty of time to get to the ferry. Packed and ready to leave we went outside  to find it was pouring with rain and blowing a gale.

In the little shopping centre cafe we brought coffee and local breakfast and considered the options. The idea of getting a little open bangka to Guimaras in the rough sea was not attractive. Instead we set off to cycle 20km to Bacolod and get the passenger ferry to Iloilo on Panay. The road was being resurfaced and so half the road was closed off and all the traffic squeezing past on the other lane. Luckily the hard shoulder was closed off but not obstructed so we rode along that. Before setting off Karen's front tyre had to be pumped up as it had a slow puncture, and halfway to Bacolod we had to stop and mend the puncture.

Arriving at Bacolod we were immediately lost in the busy traffic and incomprehensible one-way system. Finding sanctuary in a cafe we asked the staff the way to the ferry port. We might as well have asked them the way to the moon for all the help they were. They acted as if they had never heard of an island called Panay, let alone a city called Iloilo.

It was raining again as we rode down the hill towards the sea and the probable port location. We saw a queue of lorries and cars and thought that was it, but in fact they were waiting at the Vehicle Emissions Test Centre. Eventually we found the ferry and brought a ticket at the first counter, paid a 'Terminal Fee' at the next, then had to check the bikes in at the freight counter. Luckily there was plenty of time to spare.

We boarded the boat and the bikes were loaded by the porters. We learnt a valuable lesson - always supervise the loading of the bikes. Arriving at Iloilo an hour later we discovered that Karen's front tyre had rubbed so badly on something  that all the side webbing had ruptured and it needed replacing.

The traffic in Iloilo was about the worst we have encountered yet. It seems like all of the tricycle and cyclocab owners have been persuaded to trade-up to a modern, long wheelbase, jeepney style multi cabs. The whole town was nose to tail with them. They stop anywhere to pick up  and drop off passengers and the drivers never look before they pull off again. We attempted to ride to Jaro, about 3km north, to see the 'china town'  but gave up half way because the traffic was manic. Instead we rode to Moro, to see the old church.

After searching around the quieter backstreets we managed to find a replacement tyre and as we locked the bikes up at the hostel Steve discovered he had a broken spoke. Strange, after three years cycling with no wheel problems we each get a broken spoke within four days.

Iloilo to Guimbal - 30km

Intending  to go the the island of Guimaras, we packed up ready to ride into Iloilo and get the ferry. The wind was still blustery and the thought of having to get through the awful traffic brought a change of mind. Instead we set off west, along the coast, with the wind at our backs, towards Guimbal. As we passed a school we could hear music and drums and got a view of the teenagers practising for their festival.

Guimbal Chuch
 It was a short, easy day although the traffic was quite busy at first. The towns along this section of coast all have old Catholic churches, originally built in the 1600's by the Spanish. It is such a change to see old architecture that we took photos of all of them.

Moro Tower

Along this coast are the remains of the look-out towers, built in the 1500's. They were built to enable the  people to keep watch for the approach of the Moro pirate boats, searching for valuables and able bodied people to sell as slaves.

Guimbal had to be our next stop as the next reliable accommodation was in San Jose, a further 70km. The resort recommended in the 'Rough Guide' was tired and the rooms smelly and expensive so we booked into the Rosco's Garden resort over the road. It was an interesting little place with a small zoo as well as a swimming pool and  gardens which was popular with the locals but in need of some renovation.

Guimbal to San Jose - 73km

We ate breakfast by the swimming pool, watching a group of finches making nests in the creeper over our heads. The wind had dropped at last and the sea was like a mill pond. By coffee time we had arrived at  Miagao with the most impressive ancient church yet, with a carved facade depicting typical local themes and two towers. It was a struggle to find a peaceful place for coffee. The locals love their music and weather it is videoke or just the radio the volume is always on maximum with lots of bass.

20kms further on we turned away from the coast to climb over the short peninsula toward San Jose. It was a long, gentle climb and a good road surface but the sun was hot and there wasn't a breath of wind. The sign at the bottom raised our hopes of finding a fortune but the search was fruitless.

At about 11.30 the children go home from school so there were lots of them walking along the road as we toiled up the hill. One lad tried to race Steve, running along at his side for quite a way and pushing the bike along. As he tired he decided to try to jump onto the rack for a lift. This extra weight brought Steve to a complete halt and he had to forcibly evict him.

After two false summits we eventually reached the top, at the border of the Antique province, and picked up a cooling sea breeze from the west coast. At the bottom of the descent there was a small village and  a welcome eatery. It was already 1.30pm and there was little left but the lady owner welcomed us warmly and we ate fish steaks with jack fruit and bean casserole which was the most delicious food yet. There were men in the back garden chopping down a coconut tree so we had free green coconut juice as well.
The owner of Biniraven with his Union Jacks

Following the coast road north it was just 10km further to San Jose where we had booked  bed and breakfast in a place called 'Biniraven Cottages' just on the outskirts of the town.

San Jose to Tibiao - 85km

Today we continued to follow the west Panay coast north. This area was described in the Rough Guide as one of the poorest in the Philippines, but we saw more signs of wealth here than on the south coast of Negros. The road was well surfaced and there were plenty of 4wd vehicles going past us.

On our right were the towering steep sided mountains with  just a thin strip of flat rice paddies before the ocean on our left. We rolled into the town of Bugason at lunchtime. They were in the middle of their patronage  festival and as we searched for somewhere to eat lunch we came across a crowd of locals blacked up for a parade. They were happy to pose for a photo as long as we put cash into their collecting boxes.

At the corner of the market there was a small eatery with the most delicious and cheap food yet.
By now the moderate head wind which had made us work hard all morning had increased and the next 40km was challenging and tiring. The rice paddies gave way to sugar cane as this area calls itself the 'Muscovado Capital'. Here the locals call all Western men 'Joe' and by late afternoon Steve's temper was getting thin as he just wanted to tell everyone his name was Steve, not Joe.

The only accommodation that was listed along this whole coast was a place called 'Kayak Inn', about 9km north of Tibiao. It is run by a company called 'Tribal Adventures' in Boracay. We reached the turn-off and realised that 7 of those kilometres were uphill on an unsurfaced road and that there was no food available there so turned back to Tibiao. There we were directed to the university campus which rents out rooms. Apparently they run a course for students wanting to work in the hotel industry and have a small ' Homtel' where they get their work experience.

In the evening we walked to a little restaurant behind a petrol station on the main road. As usual we were the only people eating. A middle aged man arrived alone on his motorbike and asked for the videoke to be switched on. He stood on the garage forecourt, sung a couple of his favourite songs and then went home!

Tibiao to Boracay - 97km + ferry

We were the only people staying in the Homtel. The students asked us what time we would like breakfast and it was arranged for 7.30 am. As usual, although there were only two breakfasts to prepare, they had been cooked it hours in advance and the eggs and bacon were stone cold.

Rice harvesting, Panay
Leaving Tibiao the road was quite sheltered for the first ten kilometres and very flat, through rice terraces. Further north we came into a very strong wind. It was blowing from the north west and varied according to the road direction from full head on or an equally daunting cross wind, blowing the bikes into the centre of the road. Either way it was very hard work and reduced our average speed to 9kmh. The dark clouds over the mountains were threatening but the rain kept off.

Lunchtime found us in Pandan and on a restaurant search. Quite by chance we found a place near the market owned by a Swiss man and his local wife, with a good choice of international food. The rosti potatoes were so enjoyable after days of rice. From there we took the slightly shorter route to Caticlan via Nabas and then along the north Panay  coast. Here it was sheltered from the wind but the steep hills up and down the headland taxed the legs somewhat.

The ferry port at Caticlan was heaving with tourists, masses of them arriving in coaches, mini-buses, taxis and tricycles. Because we had the bikes we were directed to the Montenegro ferry which was a normal boat (ie, with no outriggers) and easier to load the bikes onto than the bangkas.

Arriving at Boracay, the rain which had been threatening all day finally arrived and it was dark and miserable. By the time we had ridden up to White Beach we were soaked so searched out a bar on the beach side to relieve the pain with beer. The problem was that the price, 60 peso, was 3x what we had been paying on the other islands. The bar menu also had peanuts, usually free, for $2 a dish.

Boracay sunset
Accommodation was also roughly 3x the price of most other places so we had to search hard to find something in our price range, eventually settling for a room in a house with four double beds. What a problem deciding which one to sleep in.

Boracay - Day Off

Boracay really does have a most beautiful white, sugary beach but it has been spoilt by excessive development. The sea is full of boats, the boats are full of divers and the sea front heaves with tourists. The worst ones are the large groups of Korean/Taiwanese/Chinese who do everything together and follow each other around.

 One day was enough for us and tomorrow we would move on to the Romblon Islands. That evening the housekeeper of the house we were staying at cooked us three huge pizzas for tea for free a significant help for the stretched finances.

Boracay to Odiongan (Tablas) - 26km + ferry

We had to be up early to get the ferry back from Boracay to Caticlan, then catch the 9.30am ferry to Looc on Tablas Island. After the usual ritual of buying tickets and paying terminal fees we had to ask around to find the ferry, a bangka, which was tied up at another jetty. As we were some of the first passengers we got the bikes and bags loaded and got a seat in the inside. The seats were normal plastic stacking chairs fixed in threes to wooden cross members. The problem with traditional Philippine boats is that they have bamboo outriggers and the spars for these pass through the middle of the boat so getting into the cabin means climbing over several of them.

The cabin kept filling with more and more passengers it was difficult to imagine where they were all going to sit and weather there were enough life jackets for all of them. Everyone had masses of baggage, boxes with crowing cockerels, bags of rice, a motor tricycle, suitcases and shopping bags. A  family with two children sat behind us and the kids were sick all the way. They had camphor rubbed on their chests which made a nauseating combination with the engine fumes.

Boat crew, Tablas Ferry
It took three hours to reach Looc, sailing in the shelter of  the islands of Boracay and Carabao. Heading north there was a choice of three roads to get to Odiogan and the plan was to follow the one that hugged the coast which looked less hilly than the other two. But somehow we missed a turning and rode up the middle one instead. Up is the right word as this one went up and over many steep, first gear hills.

On the way into Odiogan was a little oasis of a place, a restaurant and deli owned by Peter, called Mouse's Morsels. We stopped for a beer and he persuaded us to return for a meal later and recommended a good place to stay on the outskirts of town. The meal, Cajun barbecued fish with chips followed by cheese and biscuits and washed down by a good bottle of red wine, was great.

Odiongan to San Augustin - 56km

For the first 40 km the road continued following the coastline north. The population density here is very low, with just a few small agricultural and fishing villages. The road was well surfaced at first but after about 25km there were some longish rough surfaced sections. Where the road skirted the sea we had views of the 'Whale Island' which looks just like an enormous whale swimming in the sea.

Water buffalo having a bad hair day

Calatran is the northernmost town on the island. It is a poor, little visited place and didn't appear to have a single eatery. On a  side street we found a little stall offering 'burgers': a small bun with a slice of ham smothered in a generous quantity of (very sweet)  tomato sauce.

 Accommodation option were similarly limited with just one small beach resort on the outskirts of town. It appeared to be closed, with the bar shuttered and the chairs and tables stacked up. The idea of paying 1200 peso for a room with little chance of finding anything decent to eat was not tempting so we decided to continue to San Agustin.

From here the road climbs over the highlands to the east coast. Peter at Mouse's Morsels had warned us that  the road was very steep and unsurfaced, but worth the effort of a long climb for the beautiful views from the top. In fact, since he last drove up here a lot of the road has been concreted and the gradient was quite easy. From the summit we had views over the eastern coast and islands of Tablas and a lovely descent and ride along the east coast into San Agustin.

We booked into the August Inn, close to the ferry jetty. It was quite  basic but run by a lovely couple who were very helpful and friendly. Just as we were about to go out to eat there was a brown out of about an hour so we sat drinking beers at a little bar by the pier in the pitch dark.

San Agustin to San Pedro (Romblon) 15km + ferry

The ferry was scheduled to leave at 8am. When we arrived there was already quite a crowd of people sitting on the sea wall while the porters loaded the boat. They carried our bikes over and laid them on the roof. A couple of jeepneys arrived and unloaded more prospective passengers. Once we were allowed to board the little bangka there was a bit of a scrum to grab one of the life jackets that the crew were distributing. The law is that every passenger has to have one to be allowed on the boat.

We both grabbed one and jumped on. The small cabin at the rear was already full and the only way to access the front cabin was to crawl through one of the window openings. Difficult wearing a life jacket. The only vacant seats were right at the front of the boat. Not so much seats as a plank to sit on. A large crowd of prospective passengers remained on the quay, prevented from boarding by the coast guard as they had no life jackets. Gradually we dug out a few from under the seats and passed them out so most of them eventually got on.

Romblon town
It took about an hour to get to Romblon. As we arrived there was a class of children from the school having a swimming lesson in the harbour.

San Pedro Resort
 At the quay side we met an English man who advised us that the best place to stay on the island was a resort at San Pedro beach, about 10km south. This lovely, peaceful resort right on the  beach was one of our favourite places of the whole trip. We shared it with a trio of French backpackers, (Vincent, Frank and Julie)  Richard, an American, and his Philippine partner Gloria.

San Pedro - Day Off

Today was spent relaxing on the peaceful beach, snorkeling around the small coral reef in the bay and enjoying the homemade local food in the restaurant.

San Pedro - Romblon Town - 35km

Today we rode the road around the coast of Romblon island. The road surface varied between concrete and loose surface. At one point the gradient was steep and the surface loose so we had to push the bikes but otherwise it was all rideable. There were many strange shaped boulders, reminders of the island's volcanic origin.

 It was so quiet especially when we left the 'main' road, which took a more inland route, to follow an unsurfaced track along the coast. This passed through small fishing villages with friendly locals, giving stunning views over the sea.

The last 10km was on the smooth concrete road across the hills at the north of the island. Climbing up from the coast was a first gear job to start with but then an easier gradient. Romblon is famous for it's marble which is quarried in these hills. There were many stone carvers displaying their art at the roadside.

 Romblon Town - Magdiwan (Sibuyan) ferry

For the first time in the Philippines, today's ferry was a RO-RO, so much  easier to just push the bikes over the ramp. The journey to Sibuyan took three hours and most of the time we were entertained by a young man who set up his guitar and keyboard on the front deck. As we got off the ferry we saw a jeep with the 'Paradise Resort' logo, which was where we planned to stay. so we were able to talk to Edgar, one of the owners, and get directions to ride there.

Sibuyan is a beautiful and largely undeveloped island, with a 2,000m high volcano, Mount Guiting Guiting, at it's centre with its thickly forested slopes. Paradise Resort has wonderful views of the mountains but in the three days we stayed the top of the volcano was only visible for about one hour.

It also had extensive, beautiful gardens and a crystal clear river to swim in.

At the side of the restaurant were several aviaries with parrots and budgies and also a pair of rescued monkeys, David and DJ.

 Our five friends from Romblon were staying there, as well as a Polish backpacker, Hannah.

Magdiwan - Day Off

The resort had its own jeepney and today a trip had been arranged to circumnavigate the island, stopping at a couple of waterfalls on the way and taking a picnic lunch. Richard, Gloria, Hannah, Julie, Vincent and Frank were all going so we decided that  we would go with them.

The road on the west coast is unsurfaced and had been badly affected by floods a couple of years ago. All of the river brides were swept away and the temporary steel bridges erected to replace them are still waiting for permanent replacements. In a couple of the wider river valleys the road had gone also, meaning slow progress over piles of boulders. It was good to be in a jeepney rather than on the bikes.

The 'young' people of the party rode the whole way on the roof. We preferred the comfortable seats inside.

Hannah, jumping in

Along the way we cooled of with a swim in the river followed by a picnic. We watched the local boys jumping into the water from the high tower and of course the men all had to have a go to. Most courageous was Hannah, the only girl brave enough, and wearing the skimpiest of bikinis.

Magdiwan to Cajidiocan - 39km

Our original plan was to get the ferry from Sibuyan back to Roxas on Panay, ride back to Iloilo then cross to Negros and from there to Cebu.  Then we found that there was a ferry from Sibuyan to Masbate from where we could get another boat directly to Cebu and save quite a few kilometres on what were reportedly busy, boring roads.

So this morning we set off from the resort to cycle south to the port of Cajidiocan. The road was a mixture of concrete and well graded loose surface and so quiet and peaceful. Most was shaded by trees except for the sections along the edge of the sea.

Along the way we walked up the valley to yet another waterfall for a cooling swim.

As usual it was difficult to find any food at all for lunch until we arrived at Cajidiocan at about 2pm. There was a cafe with a long menu of food in the window but the only thing avail;able was a 'hamburger' the usual meagre sweet bun with a slice of meat and tomato sauce.

There were two very basic pensions in the town but they both turned us away as they were full. About 5km further south was 'Reiner's Place', German owned and a bit run down but the welcome and the food were very good.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh to Dalat - bus

With just over two weeks left before our flight to the Philippines we decided to explore Dalat and ride back to Ho Chi Minh along the south-east coast. We asked the hotel receptionist to book bus tickets for us to Dalat and make sure that we could take the bikes. After a long telephone conversation she assured us the bikes could be transported and that we needed to ride to the Travel Agent's offices for 7.30am, about 15 minutes ride.

Checkout wasn't simple as we had to book a room again for our return in two weeks time as well as arrange for the hotel to store a bag of Christmas presents which we didn't want to lug around Vietnam. The upshot of all that was that we went off without collecting our passports. Steve cycled back to pick them up and once he returned we set off thinking we were going to get on the bus.

 Instead we were guided up to the bus company office where we had to leave the bikes to be taken separately as freight. We got a bit angry at this point as no-one had explained this and now we were about 750m away from the bus and had to lug all our luggage back down the road. By the time we got back to the bus station the bus had left so we had to wait an hour for the next one.

The bus was a 'sleeper' with no seats but two levels of beds. It was actually quite comfortable if your legs weren't too long. The journey of 300km took over seven hours as progress was slow because of heavy traffic to start with and then the poor road and frequent roadworks. The kilometre markers at the roadside seemed to pass just as slowly on the bus as they do on the bike, but at least the uphills were less painful.
Dalat is at 1,500m above sea level and the temperature difference was startling.

 Although we had set off before the bikes, they had arrived already and were waiting for us at the freight office. We had to put on our wind proofs and switch on the bike lights as the sun had set. It was difficult to cycle up the hills after not climbing anything other than  small bridges since the border of Thailand and Cambodia. In the dark we lost our way a couple of times so ended up booking into the first hotel we saw which was not very good. The next morning we moved to a better one in the centre of town.

Dalat to Di Linh (Three day Easy Rider Tour) - 500km

Easy Riders waiting for their clients
After studying the map of the area to the north west of Dalat it was obvious it would be difficult to tour there by bicycle. The distances between accommodations were long and the terrain very hilly so we decided to book a tour on motorbikes. Dalat has a company called 'Easy Riders' who supply knowledgeable and competent motorbike drivers to show tourists  the sights and  how local people live and work.

Titi and Karen

We teamed up with two 'old guys' (i.e. about the same age as us), Titi and Riep for a three day tour. They arranged for our bicycles  to be shipped to Di Linh, about 73km south of Dalat ready for us to continue our ride from there.

Flower farm
Over the three days we travelled about 500km, stopping frequently to visit local businesses such as flower farms, coffee and tea plantations.

Silk spinning
 We saw silk spinning, tofu making, chopstick manufacture, sugar production, basket and brooms being made.

Rice grinding
 There are still some minority groups living in traditional long house villages but things are changing fast and everywhere the old traditional buildings are being replaced with modern ones

.The communist group farms are gone and now people can own land and make profits. Immigrant farmers who came here from Hanoi at the end of the war are gradually replacing the simple wooden huts that they lived in with stylish villas, funded by the profits from their coffee production.  Vietnam is now the second largest producer of coffee in the World, behind Brazil. The downside is that a lot of tropical forest is being replaced with coffee plantations.

Lake Lak Dawn
The tour also took us through beautiful tropical rain forest, visiting impressive waterfalls, the scenic Lake Lak area and along the famous Ho Chi Minh road near the border with Cambodia.

Elephant trekking, Lake Lak
 The route back to Di Linh reminded us how glad we were to be on motorbikes as we repeatedly climbed and descended 10% gradients and struggled to find anywhere serving food for lunch.

At the hotel in Di Linh we bade goodbye to Titi and Reip and had to part with a frightening amount of Dong to pay for our tour, but worth every cent.

Di Linh to Phan Thiet - 100k

Coffee Farms
Today's ride was one of the most scenic and enjoyable ones of this trip. Setting off from Di Linh there was a short descent before a gradual climb  up to the Di Linh plateau at 1,243m. The road was very quiet and well surfaced, climbing initially through coffee plantations and pine trees before reaching more mature forest towards the top. It was cloudy at first and by the time the sun came out there was plenty of shade from the trees.

From the summit there was a shortish descent onto a plateau and then another gradual climb to the minority village of Gia Bac. We stopped here for coffee at a little cafe at the south end of the village. The owner spoke some English and gave us biscuits with our drinks.

 From here we started the descent towards the coast, about 20kms of winding road through thick bamboo jungle with amazing views towards the mountains of the Southern Highlands.

 The only traffic was a few motorbikes climbing up and we realised that for the first time in several weeks we could actually hear bird song. The descent was made more challenging by the road repairs which had left a thin layer of loose fine gravel on the bends which meant careful braking.

After that the road flattened but still continued a gradual fall all the way to the coast. Stopping at a cafe for a milkshake we watched the lady owner mix about 15 tall glasses of yogurt drink and put them all onto a small round tray. Her husband started up his motorbike, she jumped onto the back, balancing the tray on one hand, and they went off down the road to deliver them.

Arriving at Phan Thiet we needed more refreshment so sat in a bar overlooking the river for a beer. The young man on the next table started to chat to us and offered to take us to a 'cheap hotel' despite our protestations that we could find a hotel without his help. Then a group of questionable other young men arrived and sat with him at the table. He lost all interest in us and a conversation in very low voices began. We decided he was a drug dealer so disappeared quietly while he was doing his business.

On the seafront was a large,smart, fairly new hotel overlooking the sea and booked in for 2 nights. Best of all, there was a pretty good restaurant just a short stroll along the prom.

Phan Thiet to La Gi - 72km

The traffic in the town was manic as we made our way over the river, past the enormous fleet of fishing boats and the busy fish auction. It was such a relief to turn onto a minor road towards the coast. After a few rolling hills we dropped down near the sea and an expensive new resort called Eden. Continuing near to the beach we passed many other resorts but very few of them were operational. Many were half built and abandoned and the others were under construction. They spoilt what was otherwise a lovely stretch of coastline with scattered fishing villages, high sand dunes, a tree lined beach and very few people.

We continued towards the headland at Ke Ga. The pale sand beach here  has impressive wave sculptured rocky outcrops but yet more abandoned  and derelict resorts.

 On the headland is a lighthouse and we cycled down a rough track to get a photo. A lady on a motorbike persued us, anxious to sell a lighthouse tour, but we were content with the photo.

Spot the Poser
 A local man on the beach insisted on being in the photos.

Dragon Fruit

Beyond the headland the road turns more inland. The sandy dry soil here is very suitable for growing dragon fruit and we passed through endless fields of cacti and then large numbers of shrimp farms.

La Gi was another busy fishing town with a lively, friendly feel to it. We found a small hotel not far from the river. That evening we ate a delicious meal at a street place and wandered round the town marvelling at the number of shops selling gaudy electric Christmas lights. The evening service at the RC church was standing room only and the Buddhist temple further down the road was just as popular.

La Gi to Ho Tran - 71km

As we came out of the hotel this morning there was a large crowd of people, all watching  four policemen marking up the road following yet another motorbike accident. We sat drinking coffee  at the cafe opposite watching the watchers. Next to us a man was giving his prized cockerels a morning wash and brush up, washing and drying their plumage and applying red dye to their legs and faces.

We left town on a  quiet road  along the coast. The sand dunes here are much higher and there is no agriculture at all. After a couple of kilometres the road turned more inland and joined highway 55 as far as Binh Chau. We considered stopping here for the night but the only hotel didn't look too inviting.

Taking the road to Ho Coc we passed another huge fenced area with plans for a 5 star resort and golf course. Beyond this was a long stretch of beautiful untouched coastline with only a small shanty type fishing village and several kilometres of deserted beach, lined with forest and freshwater lagoons.

Ho Tran Beach  

Then in the distance we spotted a monstrous new resort and casino development by MGM.  A 20 floor high tower that dominates the skyline and spoils the beautiful views. It is due to open early in 2013 and the massive car-park was filled with buses and motorbikes to transport the many hundreds of locals employed in its construction.

We stopped several times to try to get accommodation. The first resort was $100 a night, the next wanted $30 for a musty room, the next offered a room with 2 huge beds and a mattress on the floor with dirty bedlinen. Finally we settled for a motel up the road with a rock hard mattress but at least the sheets looked clean.

Ho Tran to Long Khanh - 78km

We could have continued along the coast to Vung Tau but from there the only options for returning to Saigon would be to ride north on the very busy and industrialised  highway 51 or get a hydrofoil up the river to Saigon. Our research suggested that the ferry operators were  sometimes awkward about carrying bicycles.

 Instead we headed north through Phouc Buu and continued on a minor road towards Cam My. Travelling away from the coast the road was gently uphill and after a few kilometres we were into rubber plantations. Here it was shady and cool and there was little habitation. There were lots of gentle rolling hills with slow climbs and then long easy descents.

 A couple of girls sharing a bicycle on their way home from school for lunch decided to race us up one of the hills. One was sitting on the saddle and the other on the rack, but they both had their feet on the pedals and worked so hard to overtake us, giggling and laughing all the way.

Cam My was marked on our map as quite a sizable place but in fact was more of a new town, just being constructed, together with a new major road. They were just building the market and there was  no accommodation there. About 9km further north was Long Khanh, a city on highway 1A, so we had little choice but to head there. It meant climbing one final hill and also negotiating the infamously busy main Vietnamese highway that runs from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.

It was easier than anticipated with a traffic light controlled junction and a wide hard shoulder. All the 4 wheeled vehicles  trundle along in the single carriageway, even the buses seemed content to just amble along without overtaking. We found a hotel and walked into the shopping centre to eat beefburgers and chips.
The churches were all decorated for Christmas and the large one across the road from the hotel had amazing illuminations of the building and all of the gardens in front.

Long Khanh to Long Thanh - 48km

The start of the morning meant either an eight km ride along highway 1A or a return over the hill to Cam My. We chose the former and again it was not too bad, just noisy. After a gentle climb  it was mostly downhill. The left turn was at traffic lights so pretty painless. Then we were back into rubber plantations and peaceful, shady roads all the way to Long Thanh.

 This town lies  on highway 51. This six lane road runs from the port at Vung  Tau to Ho Chi Minh city, carrying  massive haulage lorries and container transporters. The northbound carriageway runs on the east side of town and the southbound on the west, so any journey through town means contending with at least one of them. Setting out to find dinner we approached the road with trepidation, only to find a little six year old girl with her younger sister confidently setting out to cross between the huge, fast moving vehicles. Naturally we tagged along with them.

Expecting the usual frustrating search for a decent meal we wandered across the town and were almost at the point of giving up when we spotted an illuminated  'Tiger Beer' sign down a dark lane. It was a large, very popular and good quality restaurant, with table cloths! The food was excellent and we were kept amused by watching the kitchen boy wading in the fish pond next to us with his net, catching fish to grill.

Long Thanh to Saigon - 47km

Our last day of cycling in Vietnam we headed west from Long Thanh towards the river Dong Nai. We took the old road through  Ben Cam. At first the going was tough as there were a lot of roadworks, rough road surfaces  and  traffic. Once through the town the road was quiet and pleasant, winding over low rolling hills to  Long Tan.

From here, according to the map, the road turned away from the river valley and took a circuitous route before returning north  to the ferry crossing point. The satellite view showed  a  minor track along the river which avoided this detour. Unfortunately, as we rode smugly along the road wondering why it was so quiet, we were confronted by the gates of a large riverside naval base. The two young ratings on guard duty wouldn't let us through so we had to go the long way round.

Arriving at the last ferry of our Vietnam tour it was distressing to witness yet another RTA with some very inappropriate first aid being administered by the well-meaning bystanders. On the other side of the river the traffic was heavy with lots of container lorries nose to tail along the dual carriageway. The route into Saigon meant taking a left turn through this and then a climb up the bridge over the Saigon River, thankfully on  a separate motorbike lane. From here we followed the same route, to the same hotel, as three weeks previously.

Old Post Office Saigon
We now had five days to relax in Saigon before our flight on 18th December to Dumaguete in the Philippines to spend Christmas with our son Simon and his wife Emma.