Since our last adventure most of our time has been spent trying to save the planet and the eco-systems we so dearly love and rely on. As every day passes the severity of the climate emergency we are in becomes more and more apparent. We dream of visiting the Amazon rainforest, but we fear that by the time we get there it might be gone!
Every action has a carbon cost attached to it, which is making decisions very hard to make. Should we even continue our trip? Will we feel huge guilt by doing something so selfish when we should be fighting for the planet? How will we get to South America? Do we need to stop using Bee-bee because she runs on diesel? Is it feasible to use an electric 4x4 to overland the world?
In this blog I’m going to focus on that last question. Is it feasible to use an electric vehicle to overland the world?
The simple answer is yes. In 2017, our friends, Magdalena and Benedikt were the first to circle the Caspian Sea in an electric vehicle (Tesla Model S), from Switzerland to Central Asia and back via the Baltic countries. The “official” charging points finished in Croatia, forcing Magdalena and Benedikt to get “creative” adding a new dimension to an already tough overland trip. I had the pleasure of designing the vehicle graphics and interviewing them on The Overlanding Podcast.
On the 7th of April 2019, The Plug Me In project finally reached Sydney from the UK after travelling for 1,119 days through 34 countries, covering 95,000km becoming the longest journey in an Electric Vehicle to date.
So… It is possible, but...
Is it greener to replace Bee-bee with an electric alternative?
To calculate the carbon footprint of any vehicle is incredibly complex. The processes involved in getting raw minerals from the ground and made into a showroom ready vehicle are multifaceted and include many separate industries. Components have to be produced and often transported and then assembled. Every stage of the process requires energy and produces carbon, including the production of buildings and infrastructure (robots, phones, desks, etc).
Once the vehicle has been built, the way it is used, how old it is and how well it has been maintained are all wildly erratic variables that affect the amount of carbon it produces.
Luckily someone else has done most of the hard work for me. In his book “How Bad Are Bananas” – Mike Berners-Lee concludes that most new vehicles have a carbon footprint that equates to a monetary value. Berners-Lee suggests that a new vehicle will have a 720kg per £1000 that you spend on it. Unfortunately our vehicle isn’t new. Bee-bee is 26 years old and has a 3-Litre Turbo Diesel engine that has been well maintained.
Typically, embodied emissions produced in the production of new cars equal the exhaust pipe emissions over the entire lifetime of the vehicle. Bee-bee is older than average.
Berners-Lee deduces - “Generally speaking, it makes sense to keep your old car for as long as it is reliable, unless you are doing high mileage or the fuel consumption is ridiculously poor.” Essentially the longer you keep your vehicle the more the embodied emissions reduce per mile over time.
On top of the Carbon produced by burning the fuel there is the carbon cost of getting the fuel out the ground, refining it and then shipping it around the world.
Diesel engines are typically about 30% more efficient at turning fuel energy into vehicle movement. Unfortunately for us, each litre of Diesel has a slightly higher footprint (13 per cent) than petrol, but it produces a proportionately higher energy to compensate. Typically petrol is a cleaner option. Sadly diesel engines produce higher levels of microscopic particulates and nitrogen oxides and contribute massively to reductions in air quality that effect humans. These ultrafine particulates can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing irritation and can potentially trigger asthma attacks and cancer.
According to Berners-Lee “Overall, it is hard to say which fuel wins as the environmental vehicle fuel”. What we do know is that both petrol and diesel are pretty terrible for the planet, with diesel being worse for humans.
How does that compare with an electric vehicle?
If the production of the vehicle produces about 50% of the total carbon footprint with exhaust pipe emissions making up the other half, does that mean that 50% of the total carbon footprint of an electrical vehicle is tied up in the production too? No, is the simply answer.
Electric cars use lithium-ion batteries. The extraction of the exotic materials (lithium, cobalt, magnesium and nickel) used to produce those batteries creates hotspots in the vehicle manufacturing process. In a head-to-head comparison, electric vehicle production generates about 97% more carbon than a traditional combustion engine, with about 43% (the hotspot) of that being the battery. As technology advances these figures should reduce.
Electric vehicles are charged by coal, gas and nuclear power stations, as well as some renewable sources, all of which have an associated carbon footprint. So that raises the question – how much of a carbon saving does an electric vehicle actually give you?
Well thankfully, again, someone else has done the hard work for me. Volkswagen (who can definitely be trusted when it comes to telling the truth regarding emissions) carried out a like-for-like cradle to grave comparison between a pure electric e-Golf and a diesel-powered Golf TDI.
Volkswagen concluded that “even in countries that are intensely reliant on coal-fired electricity, like China, a battery electric model will always pollute less CO2 than one with an internal combustion engine”.
Even with the additional carbon produced during the production of the battery the typical saving is about 15%. This would be greatly increased if the electricity used for charging was sourced from renewables.
That figure came as quite a surprise to me. I was expecting it to be a much higher saving.
It is pretty much impossible to come to a definitive conclusion as to the carbon saving figure we would make by switching to an electric vehicle – we simply can’t compare like for like. It would be fair to say though that we wouldn’t be adding more carbon by switching, especially if that vehicle was second-hand.
You only have to have a quick glance at the Electric Vehicle World Sales Database to realise the rate at which the sector is growing.
As a result of the expanding electric vehicle market (and popularity of handheld devices), the demand for lithium is increasing exponentially. Between 2016 and 2018 Lithium doubled in price.
Ironically, as the world clambers to replace fossil fuels with clean energy in an effort to clean up the planet, the consequences of extracting that much lithium is becoming a major issue in its own right. Toxic chemical leaks from Lithium mines have wreaked havoc with ecosystems and it’s predicting that, by 2050, the demand for the exotic metals essential for lithium-ion batteries may be in short supply. The lithium extraction process uses huge amounts of water, in Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65% of the region’s water.
Lithium is not the only problematic metal used in producing batteries. Cobalt, unlike most metals, is classified as a toxic carcinogen and has been linked to cancer. It’s found in huge quantities across the whole of the Democratic Republic of Congo and central Africa and in recent years the price has quadrupled. These factors have resulted in unauthorised mines cashing in on the demand, resulting in unsafe and unethical methods of extraction, often using child labour, without the appropriate health and safety equipment and procedures.
The final issue with lithium-ion batteries is what to do with them once they reach the end of their lifespan. They are incredibly difficult to recycle.
Ironically when researching this blog post I discovered two companies, Voltra and Tembo, that make an electric 70 series Landcruiser… wait for it… to be used in mines that excavate coal. It is common knowledge that the world would be a much better place if fossil fuels were left in the ground. Where’s Alanis Morissette when you need her!?
“Voltra provides underground mining fleets with the durability and toughness of the original 79 series Land cruiser, but with zero emissions, significantly reducing a mine’s carbon footprint”.
Being an environmentally conscious overlander is hard work. Making the correct decisions to limit your own impact on the world is a minefield of complicated sums and moral dilemmas.
Is there even a suitable vehicle that could replace Bee-bee?
The market for off-road electric vehicles is currently slim. Telsa announced the CyberTruck last year. One part DeLorean, one part stealth bomber, it’s not the most attractive of vehicles and where would we put the rooftent? Elon Musk claims it’ll have a +500 Mile range, he also claimed it was bulletproof. At it’s big reveal, Telsa’s head of design, Franz vol Holzhausesn threw a metal ball at the windows to demonstrate how tough it was, embarrassingly the glass broke. With a price tag of +$60,000 for the all wheel drive tri-motor version and a release date of 2022 it’s highly unlikely to happen for us!
The most likely contender to populate the electric overland market is the Rivian R1. With a +400 mile range and some smart design Rivian are aiming for a market they understand. The Rivian R1 will be available as a pick-up and 7 seater station-wagon, has a wading depth of nearly a metre, up to 750hp, advanced traction control, a low centre of gravity and an incredible 0-60 time of 3 seconds. With independent motors operating each wheel it can even perform 360 degree “tank turns”. Again, with a price tag of +$60,000 and a pre-order waiting list I think we can cross this one off our list.
Some companies offer conversions for existing 4x4’s. For the traditionalist, Plower in Holland can build you an electric Land Rover Defender. In Germany Kreisel can build you a fully electric G-Class.
As all these vehicles are well out of our price range we find ourselves asking the question again - Is there a suitable vehicle, which could replace Bee-bee and appease our demand to see the world with as little impact on the planet as possible?
Yes… a bicycle.
It’s difficult to believe that we have been back in the UK for two and a half years. The irony is that time moves faster when you are not moving. When we are travelling, time slows beautifully.
Why did we stop?
We simply ran out of adventure funds.
When did we decide that we wanted to get back on the road?
The exact same day we left it.
The bonuses of blighty (that's England for our international followers)
Family. A new baby niece has been one of the highlights of our rooted respite, sharing in parenting has been overwhelmingly cherished and an exciting, precious new experience for us both. Spending time with our close family including our 4 nieces has been wonderful.
Friends. Catching up with mates has been brilliant; birthdays, holidays, festivals, parties. We met some pretty special new friends too who have kept us sane in working towards our adventure goals.
Familiarity. After so much uncertainty and unpredictability on the road it was a relief and comfort to be in a country where we were accustomed to the people, food, language, culture and environment. Life in the UK where everything is recognisable and relatively straightforward is a welcome respite from the instability and irregularity of overlanding and gave us both chance to ‘re-charge’ our adventure batteries (and funds!).
Focus. Time ‘off the road’ instead of ‘off-road’ has allowed us to reflect on our travels and given us the opportunity to share our stories through presentations and talks. We have been privileged to impart our knowledge and travel tales to photography clubs, women’s groups, hiking clubs and at overland shows. Andy established ‘The Overlanding Podcast’, the first audio programme of its kind, as well as developing our website as both a documentation of our trip but also a resource for other adventurers. We have been able to spend time sorting our photographs and film footage ready for editing. Bee-bee has been well rested but we have a relaxed timeframe in which to get her adventure-ready. We have had the luxury of time to research our next route and plan without pressure.
The most difficult adjustments we had to make to a stationary existence?
Initial dependence. We journeyed until our last Malaysian Ringgit coin so gratefully and fortunately relied on my parents to house us while we initially got back on our feet, starting again from nothing; selling, working, earning and saving.
Employment. Working outside of our chosen careers and being confined within archaic structures of organisational incompetence was testing. Why are so many people in positions of authority such dicks? We are both far too free and feral after years on the road to integrate fully back into ‘jobsworth’ society. Fortunately we worked day to day with some incredible clients who gave us a whole new inspiring insight into life. Retiring again after 2 years of working for the ‘man’ has been euphoric.
Urban dwelling. The concrete, the grey, the lack of wildlife, the same kitchen sink window view. We both developed an extreme obsession with houseplants to the point our flat resembled a jungle obscuring most windows. Andy built a 2m high bed so we still had to comfortingly climb up into our ‘roof bed’ at night. New friends and wildlife volunteering gave me purpose and strength to keep a balance between a dishearteningly destructive world and my environmental values.
Depression. The demons returned armed with weapons of environmental anxiety, lost control, financial stress, and dark winter melancholy. Many people think we are crazy for what we do when we overland but static existence creates its own personal insanity for us.
What have we learnt from our time ‘home’?
Time with loved ones is precious, don’t take it for granted and make an effort to spend quality time with the people you love. The old cliché “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is not only true of people; we miss our homes and families when we’re away exploring but we also miss our wandering lifestyle when we stop. Time spent doing both allows you to fully appreciate what you have and not take anything for granted.
So a huge THANK YOU to everyone who has housed, fed, ‘watered’, encouraged, supported and helped us during both our travels and the interim period’s in-between. You are the people who truly keep our world turning.
We will be keeping our travel name ‘Around the World in 800 Days’, less so for camp-counting and more to emphasis our unhurried expedition style. The adventure continues.
Normal? No. Nomadic? Yes.
Our eyes are now fixed on the horizon in a westerly direction and we’re counting down the days…
As travellers on a very tight budget we are always looking for ways to save money and extend our time travelling on limited funds. We stumbled across the website https://www.workaway.info/ by accident whilst in France in May 2013 during the second phase of our trip. The philosophy of Workaway is described as “a few hours honest help per day in exchange for food and accommodation and an opportunity to learn about the local lifestyle and community, with friendly hosts in varying situations and surroundings”. By joining the website community for a minimal annual fee ($38 for a couple, for a year) you have access to over 25,000 hosts in 155 countries worldwide. You can search within specific locations and narrow the kind of ‘work’ you would like to participate in through categories such as farming, gardening, eco projects, helping with tourists and art. You have your own profile with a description of your interests and skills, plus some photographs, and every host has a page where they describe what’s expected and some information and photos about themselves. The added bonus is that feedback can be left by ‘workawayers’ who stay with a host, and vice-versa about you as a volunteer, so the system is self-monitoring.
Throughout our 854 days on the road we have participated in 7 Workaway placements, all quite varied but all enjoyable experiences. In Spain Andy did some graphic design work while I helped out at a hostel, in Croatia we helped a couple realising their permaculture lifestyle dream and in Hungary demolished walls and painted hundreds of beams to restore an old mansion. In Greece we cleared land, fixed chicken fences and built a vegetable garden and in Armenia helped establish an eco-project and walking trail network. Two weeks in Montenegro was spent photographing the local beaches off-season for a hostel owner and in India we made environmental education videos and helped a local guy develop his sustainability project.
The advantage of a Workaway placement, which for us was generally from 10 days to a month, is that you get to pause in a place which after weeks and months on the road, constantly moving, is a welcome change. You get the opportunity to become part of a community rather than just passing through places and gain a real insight into what life is like for local people in the country that you are visiting. You can ask all those questions that have been mystifying you about a place to actual local people and enjoy traditional food, culture and hospitality in a welcoming home. By timing our Workaway in Mumbai with the time period we were waiting for our car shipment to arrive, we saved on accommodation and food costs for almost a month.
Through Workaway we have collected and pickled mushrooms in Croatia, wine-tasted in Hungary, milked goats in Greece and been invited to local festivals. We joined Bollywood dance classes in Mumbai, skipped with orphans at an orphanage in India and celebrated Easter at an ancient Armenian Monastery.
It is essential to be flexible with Workaway, most hosts are quite laid-back and sometimes there are issues with communication through the website- have a few back-ups… people not replying is not uncommon! Be clear about what the work arrangement is; 4-5 hours a day with 2 days off is the general rule and be happy about the accommodation offered which can range from a luxurious cabin to a patch of grass where you pitch your own tent. Generally, good communication from day one when you first contact a potential host, right the way through your placement, makes for a much more positive and happier experience for everyone.
In summary, despite not earning any money while on a Workaway, the fact that you are not spending any is equally as valuable when trying to maintain a long-term trip. In the future we plan to build our own sustainable home and have learnt many new skills through our placements which will help enormously when that time comes. We have made life-long friends with our hosts and some of our best memories of a country have come the through Workaway experiences.
Small, steaming stalls surround a central area of Formica tables and plastic chairs, quickly filling up as evening approaches with groups of friends and families. Buckets of ice with bottles of beer are ordered and brought to the tables from the drinks stalls by waitresses, then dishes are selected and paid for from your vendor of choice and your table number given. Simple, no-fuss, fast, delicious, sociable and great value… welcome to hawker food eating in Malaysia.
Hawker centres in Malaysia are essentially permanent collections of street-food stalls, normally in an open-air complex, with communal tables. A wonderful diversity of nationalities, culture and religions in Malaysia has resulted in a fusion cuisine which boasts some of the world’s best street food.
Extensive menus seem to defy the limited space and basic set-up of each makeshift food outlet, staff whirl round in a cramped space; barbequing meat, draining steaming noodles, tossing unidentified morsels in sizzling woks and stirring huge vats of bubbling soup. Bowls of raw ingredients are lined up and meticulously displayed on the stall fronts; cubed tofu, black mushrooms, sliced raw vegetables, squid rings, dumplings, prawns, shellfish, gelatinous noodles and chopped crab sticks.
Our big, empty table at the CF night food court in George Town, Penang Island, was soon filled with a laughing group of local friends, who quickly included us in their beer-top-ups as bottles of cold Tiger flowed continuously. Chatting to them, they said they came to the food court every week, preferring the laid-back atmosphere and bustle to more formal restaurants. The beers washed down plates of Char Kuey Teow; greasy, thin stir-fried noodles topped with egg, prawns, spring onions and beansprouts and wrestled with chopsticks. Three young cabaret singers belted out pop covers from a round, glittery central stage, pausing every time the electricity cut out then starting each tinny, rhythmical ballad from the start once the power surged back.
On another evening in George Town at the Red Garden night food court we tried Penang’s signature dish of Assam Laksa, a pleasantly pungent, fish-based soup with sour Tamarind and noodles, chilli, cucumber, lemongrass and prawn paste.
In Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, we sampled Nasi Kandar, an Indian-influenced rice dish topped with different meat, seafood, vegetables, with a speciality being fish head curry. An array of oily, spectacularly spicy, chilli-infused dishes are laid out to choose from, then added to light, fragrant rice.
For breakfast, find a small space on a street bench for Roti Canai, delicious fresh, puffed flatbread served with a dish of spicy lentil Dhal and a mug of sweet, milky chai.
In the Bukit Bintang area of Kuala Lumpur the street of Jalan Alor heaves on both sides with bustling restaurants, stalls and pop-up eateries. Crowds of locals and tourists perch on plastic stools around pavement tables. Sticky jack fruit is sliced into finger-licking pieces, tiny stalls crammed with piles of Kuih Kosui banana-leaf wrapped sweet coconut dough parcels and no-nonsense menus of dim sum and fried fishcakes line the walkways.
From our shared table at Wong Ah Wah eatery we people-watched and picked at Batu Maung Satay, a selection of different grilled meats on thin bamboo sticks dripping with a rich, thick peanut sauce. Not just a means of satisfying your hunger, Hawker centres are an entire experience of food and friends as you rub shoulders with fellow diners and enjoy a whole menu of weird and wonderful new snacks and dishes.
The capital city of the Malaysian state of Penang, George Town, is a hectic mix of distinct historic cultures, urban cool and some of the best food we’ve had during our entire trip.
The city’s history is rich; established in 1786 by the British East India Company, George Town was one of the first British colonies in South-East Asia. During it’s British heyday the port town served as a trading post, with various ethnicities and religions arriving on its shores and passing through. During World War II the town was conquered by the Japanese empire, at the end of the war the Japanese surrendered and the British took control again.
It’s this diverse mix of influences, the coalescence of local, British, Chinese, Indian and Islamic elements that has shaped George Town’s large variety of eclectic architectural styles. It’s this mish-mash of Buddhist temples, mosques, churches and all manner of buildings in between that led to it being awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Nowadays George Town is considered a city; wandering around the narrow streets of the old town it is easy to forget that fact. ‘Little India’ and ‘China Town’ are authentic as it gets, the sights, sounds and smells of Little India transported us straight back. Like India, the British influence is apparent and the cities charm lies in its backdrop of colonial architecture. The architecture is easily on a par with the likes of Mumbai, although it lacks some of the grandeur.
Alongside the traditional architecture are stunning Art Deco buildings from the 30’s and 40’s and modernist buildings from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Then comes the post-modernist architecture from the 90’s and 2000’s; these later additions add something for any architecture enthusiast and augment a surprising amount of charisma.
The city is cultured. Cool coffee shops, art galleries, public sculptures and design houses are nestled amongst the quaint streets, they’ve even got a container hotel! The cities burgeoning street art scene is also drawing a lot of attention from tourists.
Reputed as the gastronomic capital of Malaysia thanks to the ubiquitous street food, George Town is heaven for foodies - but we’ll save that for another blog.
George Town really is quite unique; it’s colourful history and compactness means you can soak up the multicultural essence of the area with ease. One of our favourite stops in South East Asia.
Thailand has a love affair with the pick-up truck, literally everyone in Thailand drives a 4x4 pick-up. Sales of the Mitsubishi Triton, which is made in Thailand, practically saved the Japanese company from going out of business after a partnership deal with Germany's Daimler fell through. In 2007 they’d exported over a million Mitsubishi trucks to other Asian countries.
Mitsubishi’s are not the only popular model, all the Japanese manufacturers are represented, which is great for us being a Toyota owner as spare parts are easy to find.
What is noticeably different about Thailand in comparison to the rest of South-East Asia is that they like to modify their vehicles. Some are jacked up to ridiculous heights whilst others are slammed to the floor. One thing that Thai garages do well is suspension!
We spotted some incredibly well prepped off-road vehicles as well as some serious street racers. Like the Paykan pick-up in Iran most customised vehicles are still practical. In fact many of the suspension mods on the slammed vehicles are designed to handle extra weight, the upgraded suspension in combination with steel rear wheels and uprated tyres dictate the style of many vehicles.
Most towns and cities operate a private minibus system utilising the flatbed of the pick-up trucks as a seating area. This informal taxi system is the lifeblood of most cities.
Most of the minitrucks (the slammed ones) have custom soundsystems too that you’ll hear bumping from miles away.
Customization isn’t just limited to 4 wheels though; anyone who doesn’t own a 4x4 owns a scooter.
There are three models of scooter that are abundant throughout South-East Asia. The 125cc Honda Sonic, manufactured in Thailand and the similar Yamaha Mio and the Yamaha Nouvo. All three bikes are cheap, mechanically simple, relatively pokey and most motorcycle shops sell a whole host of accessories allowing for complete customization.
Scooters are frequently fitted with race handlebars, painted up in neon colours and covered in race inspired stickers. The mods are not just cosmetic, typically thinner wheels and tyres are fitted along with a big boar exhaust system, upgraded fuel delivery systems and brake upgrades.
Unlike any other country we have visited, and for reasons we don’t understand, Thailand is absolutely obsessed with modifying vehicles, which is great for any motor head!
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine
“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien
“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
The internet is full of inspiring travel quotes floating wistfully over awe-inspiring landscapes. The general gist being that - travel broadens your mind. Thankfully I haven’t taken to wearing Thai fishing pants and eating with my hands, I have however garnered a whole host of insight that might fill you with wanderlust (or not)!
In this blog I’ll be attempting to add my wisdom to the pantheon of travel writers by summarizing 10 things I’ve learnt as a global overlander!
1) “Nothing says death like the smell of rotting flesh”
Before we embarked on our adventure I can’t say I was very au fait with the pungent smell of death. I have however, since travelling, become very familiar with the unpleasant odour of rotting animal corpses. Typically, circling raptors give us enough advance warning to wind up the windows before the rancid smell violates our nostrils.
2) “The more flags a country flies the less you can trust its government”
Iran, Turkey, Eastern Europe and the whole of Central Asia like to fly flags. Countries full of nationalism and pride, countries with some of the friendliest people we’ve encountered and countries with fairly dubious governments.
Generally, the number of flags a country likes to fly is tantamount to how untrustworthy the government is. The more flags you see, the more you should be scared.
Nothing instils nationalism and patriotism in a country than hoisting a giant flag, preferably bigger than your neighbouring country’s largest flag. For a short time Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest country, held the world record with their 165 metre tall pole costing a whopping $3.5 million. Incidentally, over 200+ stolen luxury cars from Germany managed to find their way to the president of Tajikistan’s inner circle and associates of his family.
In Southern India the prominence of the Hammer and Sickle is a little unnerving at first.
For Westerners, the image is synonymous with the Cold War era Soviet Union and filled with negative connotations. To see this distinctive red and white flag flying so prominently is an indication that the people of southern India may have slightly opposing political values to our own.
3) “I went to India to find myself… I found out I was a @*$£!”
Most people go on a spiritual journey whilst in India. Certainly in Rishikesh and Haridwar we witnessed hundreds of Westerners “finding themselves”. After having spent more than 4 months in India I became “enlightened” only to discover I’d turned into an intolerant, short tempered, unreceptive and quite frankly horrible person.
My hard earned open-minded outlook was tested to the limit by people who think it is ok to spit in my general direction, open my car doors and get inside, push and shove and, worst of all, invade my personal space at every opportunity. Then there’s the rules and bureaucracy… and the Indian customs department and the filth and rubbish and… AND THE DRIVING!
Somehow I managed to maintain my polite English demeanour by not exploding into a tirade of abuse, but honestly, I’m not sure how! All the negativity slowly ground me down until the point I actually started to resent India and the monster it turned me into. Thankfully the duality of the situation meant we met hundreds of amazing, friendly and openhearted people who, on a daily basis, helped maintain a certain level of sanity.
4) “Never judge a road by a map”
Forget everything you’ve ever learnt about estimating travel times. On one occasion in Greece it took us 2 days to drive 10 miles. In North Eastern India, what should have been a 3-hour drive took 15 hours. Expect potholes, corrugations, mud, landslides, collapsed bridges and surfaces so ungraded that you question whether it is actually a road and if your really expensive tyres are up to the job!
What can look like a motorway on a map can often be the worst road in the country. Kazakhstan is a massive country and most of the roads are in terrible condition, if you need to drive all the way across it, make sure you have enough time on your visa! In Armenia some of the potholes are so large you can see them on Google Earth.
5) “Stupidity is rife all around the world”
The world is full of stupid people, myself included, from the poorest of the poor to the top ranks of the Indian caste system and from religious and political leaders to the average man on the street stupidity is demonstrated daily around the world. Stupidity out of necessity is endemic in poorer countries, if you have a family of five and a motorbike is your only form of transport you’re going to use it. Some might argue that you express a great deal of intelligence to solve the problem of fitting 5 people on a motorbike, but that is debatable.
In Armenia we were overtaken by a speedy Lada on an icy mountain road, 40 minutes later we caught up with the driver who’d lost control and skidded off the road. His car was on its roof about 10 metres down an embankment and was being pulled back onto the road by a tractor. Another 30 minutes passed and the same car overtook us again still travelling at 40+ mph, only now his roof was all battered.
We were also overtaken by a 6-year old driving through fast heavy traffic on the ring road around Almaty, Kazakhstan, whilst his father relaxed eating a sandwich. We managed to snap a photograph when we pulled up alongside them at the traffic lights.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Chinese are exploiting anyone and everyone in every country we visited. The respective governments are letting it happen at the expense of the environment and the people who inhabit it. The majority of the countries we visited have been ravaged by major wars, that have all happened during my lifetime. It’s tough to distinguish who is stupider; the uneducated or the “educated”; at every level greed generally outweighs common sense and, quite often, human life… Who am I to judge? I managed to loose my spare wheel and get stuck in the middle of an open field.
6) “It’s a big job but someone has to do it”
This entry should be #2 really - thankfully it's only got one photograph! When overlanding you certainly become more aware of your bodily functions. Due to diet change, dehydration and food poisoning I am amazed on a daily basis at what my body produces, especially in the length department.
Having previously read that monitoring your bowel movements on expedition was a key indicator to your health I decided to keep a “Captain’s Log”. The ‘log’ featured the date, a descriptive title, GPooS coordinates and a record of ‘firmness’ using the Bristol Stole Scale. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about here are a few entries from the Captain’s Log…
03/07/2012 - The Vulgar Volga Turf-out - 54° 46' 22.5912'' N48° 47' 59.6256'' E – BSS 5
30/07/2012 - The Secret Forest Foot-long - 53° 54' 26.694'' N109° 17' 23.1396'' E – BSS 4
08/04/2014 - The Sahara Sludge Pile - 29° 47' 12.6024'' N6° 3' 59.4468'' W – BSS 6
Having read that the largest fossilised human poo was 9 inches long my important ‘work’ may help archaeologists of the future locate specimens, which will clearly top this.
7) “Sleep with the planet”
I don’t mean a promiscuous overlanding lifestyle; getting in touch with your circadian rhythms really does make a world of difference to how great you feel. We go to bed when it goes dark and get up with the sun (well Emma does). This is occasionally problematic; in Norway it never went dark and in Georgia it was dark by 4pm. It is not unusual for us to sleep 10 hours a night – we’ve never had so much sleep. One of the benefits to all this is that not only do you get to watch sunsets you see way more sunrises too.
8) “Expect the unexpected”
Expect to be woken up by an Indian TV crew opening your tent.
Expect to be on TV in Iran.
Expect to be chased by sheep.
Expect the road to not exist anymore.
Expect rocks bigger than your car to fall out the sky.
Expect to see LOTS of guns.
Expect to wake up covered in snow.
Expect the bridge to have collapsed.
Expect to see a Kyrgyz nomad carrying a severed horse leg on the back of his horse.
Expect to see a holy man rolling down a motorway.
Expect an Iranian truck driver to just give you 40L of fuel… For FREE.
Expect to see a bus on its side.
Expect your front wheel to collapse.
Expect to see a truck half hanging over a cliff edge.
Expect a monkey to piss on your face.
Expect a 150cm Monitor Lizard to stroll through your camp.
Expect a wild deer to come and say hello in the evening.
Expect your ice-cream to be MASSIVE….
And these are just a few things we managed to photograph… We never managed to photograph the giant Cobra that passed through our camp a little to close for comfort, the Huntsman spider in our car or the numerous earthquakes we experienced.
9) “Less is more”
We sold nearly all our possession to fund our trip; it was a liberating experience. Living with few belongings shifts the focus of what is important. Materiality falls aside as basic survival comes to the forefront: finding water, food and fuel, keeping clean and dry and vehicle maintenance. Living this way helps ground you and brings a little perspective to life.
10) “Never get a haircut in Armenia”
No text needed for this one... Pictures speak louder than words.
No visit to Cambodia, and in fact SE Asia, would be complete without a visit to magnificent Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world with 150 square miles containing more than 100 beautifully carved temples and shrines.
Despite a restless night in a humid roof tent with an all-night deafening amphibian chorus (how can frogs be that loud!) we stumbled down the ladder at 4.30am, determined to make the most of our budget-extravagant $40 3-day passes.
Our first dawn stop was the show stopper of the ancient site itself; Angkor Wat. As the sun rises over this centrepiece of the vast Khmer Empire capital, reflected in an orange glow in the surrounding moat, your breath is simply taken away. No matter how many times you’ve glanced the iconic silhouette on postcards and guide books, it’s still a guaranteed jaw-dropper.
Inside, the religious site is still very much active with saffron-clad monks placing smoking incense and offerings at the feet of Buddha statues. Shady, green lawns surround the central temple complex of colonnaded walkways, carved stone towers and steps into grey courtyards surrounded by sculpted Hindu gods, the huge, iconic lotus-bud towers rising above.
Away from the crowds and the manicured lawns, it was the semi-ruined temples that encapsulated the true lost-city feel of Angkor Wat. Preah Khan was the perfect example of a crumbling fusion of Hindu and Buddhist ancient architecture, hidden amongst dense jungle with huge tree roots penetrating the mighty stone walls to a point you weren’t sure which was supporting which. Amongst the dark corridors, sunlight peacefully infiltrating where the ceilings had collapsed, were glimpses of a violent recent history where many Vishnu and Krishna statues had been ‘decapitated’ by Khmer Rouge forces.
For me, the feeling of nature taking back many of the temples across the site is what gives Angkor it’s mystical beauty; roots and vines so intertwined with temple walls it’s difficult to see where one ends and another begins. Man-made history merging seamlessly with present natural structures. Intricately carved patterns on walls are thinly shrouded with beautiful pale-green lichen, this slow-growing, dry algal fungus as delicate as the statues they gracefully envelope.
Our second eye-watering early start was a climb to the less-visited Pre-Rup for sunrise, sat silently among the rock-carved upper terrace as the changing dawn light turned the stone through a myriad of orange and red hues.
The incredible Ta Prohm was another magical example of ancient ruins intertwined with nature, a few Angelina-esque jumps through root-twisted archways as we ventured through the original jungle ‘Tomb Raider’ temple, with lichen-covered relics and giant tree roots both destroying and holding ancient stone structures together.
“If Pre-rup is lego, with its small, tightly packed brickwork then Ta Keo, with its enormous bulkly blockwork is Duplo” Andy, 2016. The early mornings clearly getting to him.
A short distance away from the main Angkor site, we visited Banteay Srei Hindhu Temple, containing some of the finest, most intricate stone carvings on earth. Beautiful, fine carvings in rose-coloured stone grace the walls and archways of this very delicately different small temple.
Early on our third morning, Bee-bee paused underneath the huge stone archway of the Victory Gate entering Angkor Thom, last great capital of the Khmer empire, with Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara staring down commandingly.
We rubbed shoulders with hordes of colourfully-dressed, selfie-obsessed Chinese tourists entering the incredible Bayon temple; 54 stone towers graced with 216 huge carved stone faces of Buddha staring both contemplatively yet domineeringly down on us.
The first level of the temple contains an enormous walkway with carved Bas-reliefs depicting life in 12th Century Cambodia; elephant processions, hunting, fishing, dolphins, turtles, deer, lions and underwater pond scenes. The upper terrace boasts huge, stone towers four-sided with the giant carved faces of Avalokiteśvara amidst a labyrinth of shaded, vaulted walkways.
An afternoon hot, sweaty climb to the top of the Baphuon, in the 12th-century royal Buddhist city of Angkor Thom was rewarded with spectacular views across the temple courtyard and gardens. Bee-bee posed in front of the splendour of the carved wall ‘terrace of the elephants’ and we rounded off our final Angkor adventures with a sunset climb back up to the Bayon. Eeerily devoid of the earlier tourist crowds, a light monsoon shower fell amidst the many stone faces of Buddha making them look serene, like closing their eyes into the sunset and our time here.
The entire, epic site is breath-taking and worth every cent of the budget-denting 3-day pass. I think even Andy considered walking through ancient history to be worthy of 3 consecutive pre-dawn wake-up calls, a must for any travel to the region and one of our finest SE Asian memories.
After Cambodia’s auspicious independence in 1953 the country began a period of transformation. This new social and cultural vision for Cambodia included numerous building projects in the capital Phnom Penh. This new architecture, integrating the ‘international modernism’ with local tradition and materials, became known as ‘New Khmer Architecture’, culminating in the construction of the National Sports Stadium, built in 1963 for the Southeast Asia Games the following year. Ironically the stadium never hosted any joyous unifying sporting events as the games were cancelled with the Vietnam War looming overhead. Instead it accommodated huge nationalistic political rallies!
During these prosperous times, these large, modern, angular concrete buildings became a symbol of Cambodia’s modernization. As the decade came to a close, dark clouds circled Cambodia as the Vietnam War started sucking in its neighbouring countries. Later the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime did little in progressing the countries vision of modernization. Miraculously, despite it’s recent history, numerous buildings constructed during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, many designed by one architect, Vann Molyvann, have survived.
Institute of Foreign Languages
What is now The Institute of Foreign Languages was originally the Teacher Training College. The original ‘Lab Buildings’ and ‘Library’ are two of the cities most interesting buildings. The group of three buildings by Vann Molyvann were his last work of the 1970s.
The Lab Buildings
The sophisticated lab buildings ooze 70’s panache, dynamism and chic. These structures are by no means style over form and function; but rather the perfect combination of all three.
The structure is a glorious demonstration of concrete ingenuity, a striking form that executes its function perfectly. Inside, the four elevated classrooms are joined by a long hallway, screened on one side by unglazed masonry lattice blocks allowing for fresh air to blow through.
Inside the raised space-age classroom pods, the cantilevered sloping floor supports stepped seating, originally tubular roof lights focused daylight onto each lab desk. The classrooms are small to encourage focused learning, a point re-enforced by vertically louvered windows that allow natural light in but restrict the view of the distractive world outside.
The Central Courtyard and Surrounding Buildings
The complex of buildings at the Teacher Training College centre around an open courtyard and raised walkways, bodies of water unify the site.
In his blog about the architecture of Vann Molyvann, Rémy Bertin writes “within the central courtyard is a beautiful old tree with an incredibly wide canopy, I think that the tree has to be older than the 35 year old campus, meaning that the buildings were composed around it.”
This approach to architecture respects the existing nature and incorporates it into the surroundings.
The courtyard, walkways and surrounding vicinity offer shady areas where students can gather and socialise. The large expanses of water have a cooling effect on hot summer days whilst reflecting light into what typically would be gloomy areas.
The Library at the Teacher Training College was built in 1972. Its unique appearance is an example of ‘form follows construction’ (if that’s a thing?). Like the Richard Rogers designed Lloyds building in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris the structure of the building is integral to the aesthetic. The exterior columns encase the building like a ribcage.
Vann Molyvann created the Tardis-like building that accommodates offices at its core on the ground floor. A curved staircase leads to the 1st floor where the library is located. From the exterior of the building it is impossible to comprehend the complex workings of the circular roof. Inside, the construction of the roof becomes apparent as the complex geometry and concrete assembly is clearly visible and offers the same degree of sculptural form as the exterior. What looks like a concrete encased building from the outside is deceptively light and airy inside.
National Sports Complex
Like many stadiums around the world the National Sports Complex in Phnom Penh was built in hope. Sadly, like its would-be Olympic bid winning counterparts the stadium has never really fulfilled its potential. As previously mentioned the Southeast Asia Games in 1964 never took place. Luckily, despite very few major sporting events being held at the site, the buildings have survived and have been adopted by Phnom Penh’s natives as a central recreational ground.
The Olympic sized swimming pool and diving pool are now filled with screaming kids, quirky impromptu aerobics sessions are held trackside and kids fly kites from the top of the stadium stands.
Like a modern-day temple to sports, the National Sports Complex was built using east-west alignment inspired directly by Cambodia’s most famous, and slightly more visited architectural site, at Siem Reap.
The original sports complex contained several giant pools, a sly nod to the lake that once stood on the site, and a homage to the temples at Angkor, which are often surrounded by moats and pools. Unfortunately the government sold off the surrounding land and these watery features have been lost, detracting from the overall feel of the site. The diabolical apartments that have replaced them have now obscured the view and lessoned the impact of the symmetrical array of buildings. The symmetry of the complex typifies the architectural layouts of the great temples such as Angkor Wat and Preah Khan. The indoor stadium, the structure of which also supports some outside stadium seating, sits centrally, nestled into the raised horseshoe earthen mound which houses the concrete stands of the stadium. The stadium, which has a capacity of 80,000, is similar in construction to the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, which I visited last year.
Inside the indoor stadium Vann Molyvann’s mastery of light is clearly apparent, he utilises numerous techniques to great effect. Underneath each of the stadium stands natural light is beautifully diffused through consistently spaced windows underneath each seat.
Institute of Technology of Cambodia
The Institute of Technology, on the aptly named Russian Boulevard, is an immense building of Soviet proportions. It comes as no surprise to discover that the designers were in fact Russian. Nothing instils communist pride like an imposing +400 metre long, 3 storey high, concrete dynamo of creativity. Built with Soviet funds, the building was a gift to Cambodia. Like many of its contemporaries the complex optimises the use of air-flow, a masterful display of ingenuity, constructed to allow natural light while also keeping out heat and rain, through screened open cavities that extend over the entire façade of the main building.
The building was completed in 1964 and used until its abandonment during the war in 1975. After the war the French rehabilitated the school and many of the classes there are still taught in French.
Other Notable Buildings
Other notable buildings include… The Royal University of Phnom Penh with it’s undulating roof, which somehow seems to defy the laws of physics and engineering, The 100 Houses Project and the White Building; an innovative socio-cultural housing project for Phnom Penh’s growing urban population of the 1960’s. The scheme included the iconic Chaktomuk Theatre, designed by Vann Molyvann alongside ‘The Grey Building’, an Olympic Village for the Southeast Asian Games, also designed by Molyvann.
Unfortunately the buildings virginal paint-job has long deteriorated. It does however continue to be at the forefront of cultural importance and is now the focal point of a photographic project that centres on many of the 2000 artists, families and individuals who still live and work there! The White Building has garnered somewhat of an iconic reputation, despite its cult following amongst Phnom Penh’s cultured youth the building faces an uncertain future.
If you are interested in New Khmer Architecture and are visiting Phnom Penh please check http://www.ka-tours.org for a guided tour. They come highly recommended! Unfortunately there were no regular public tours whilst we visited and we couldn’t afford to organize a private tour! They also have a great FREE walking tour map, which is available here! Most of the buildings mentioned in this blog are open to the public and accessible without prior permission.
With all the planning, spreadsheets and lists in the world it is impossible to always climatically be in the right place at the right time. We found ourselves in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos for the onset of the monsoon; a time of heat, humidity and torrential downpours. However, we overlanders are/should be predisposed to enduring the elements and despite the climatic and logistical challenges presented by monsoon travel we found enormous benefits to touring during this season.
Temperatures were a sweltering +40°C in the lead up to the start of the monsoon but once the rains actually arrived, showers reduced the temperature often by 10°C. Humidity was high but the accompanying monsoon breeze made the stickiness bearable and by 8pm the temperature had fallen to below 30°C, which was the crucial difference between a good and a sweaty, restless night’s sleep in the roof tent.
Rain itself presents obvious challenges when you are overlanding in a 4x4 and live outdoors. We learned to read the skies and approaching cloud formations when deciding if we had the necessary 45 minutes dry period necessary to rustle up and eat a stir fry for dinner. Our awning has attachable sides which are perfect if the rain is not accompanied by strong winds, in which situation the awning is more hassle than it is worth with sides flapping towards the stove and water being blasted by gale-force winds through the many gaps. On this occasion we take comfort that our fridge still delivered our beers at a refreshing 3°C and that SE Asian countries sell an amazing array of beer snacks- dried squid and pea crisps for tea-time in a steamed-up, front of the car, substituted dinner on more than one occasion.
An unavoidable downside to monsoon conditions is the surge in blood-sucking critters, particularly mosquitoes (everywhere) and leeches in the jungle. It’s never a pleasure to have to smear thick, pungent insect repellent on when your skin is already sticky with sweat and covered in sand and salt but it does work. Camping away from swamps and long grass reduced the numbers dramatically.
The last thing you want to do when the day eventually cools off slightly is to put clothing layers on, but this is when the worst aerial assault begins. Generally long sleeves and trousers kept the biters at bay. A small price to pay when watching the evening illuminated dance displays of emerging fireflies, which also increase in numbers during this season and gracefully light up the night sky.
Persistent precipitation leaves clothing, blankets and towels damp for days but the sun does eventually come out and then everything is dry within an hour. Rainfall is typically short and sweet and only lasts for a few hours of each day.
There is something beautifully wild and romantic about sitting on a deserted beach with waves crashing on the shore and dark storm clouds swirling in the sky. We witnessed some incredible lightning storms from the (relative) safety of our roof tent and the gentle pitter-patter of early morning raindrops can be as soothing as a lullaby when there is no work to get out of bed for.
We adventured through Cambodia and South Thailand in June, described by travel guides as the ‘low season when visitors melt’. The plus side of visiting at this time is that most tourists are far more sensible than us and follow this advice, leading to an empty Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat early in the morning. The surrounding beaches of Krabi and Phuket region, with sands crawling with tourists in the high season of November to February, were abandoned. We could wild camp undisturbed and wander endless stretches of empty sand gazing at an uninterrupted horizon of waves and karst limestone rock islands.
National Parks were deserted so we could enjoy wildlife trails all to ourselves, with numerous sightings of normally crowd-shy animals and birds. Camp sites were uninhabited and in many we were the only occupants, with the exception of sharing the site with wild deer and the shower block with the odd water monitor lizard. Paradise. Most chalet and beach-hut resorts are closed but now and again they let us camp there for free and use the facilities. On one occasion we were invited to join the builders for sundowner beers and fresh crab and shrimps after a day of cabana restoration preparing for the next season. If it’s peace and not parties you’re after, off-peak travel in Thailand is bliss.