Triplogue - Thailand I

Thailand – Prologue (f)

Picking up the pen, or the keyboard in this case, seems difficult after so long a break from Brathood. Even worse, writing about events and sentiments that were experienced some four or more weeks ago has somehow diluted their intensity. I’ll have to remember not to wait this long to record things in the future.

Our arrival at the border of Thailand occurred in the sweltering heat of the day. We’d ridden some eighty or ninety kilometers before lunch and were fatigued and hungry as we passed through one of the more casual customs and immigrations procedures of the trip. We were too hot and tired to continue riding so we sought a ride for the final kilometers into Hat Yai. Getting a ride proved to be a daunting task; no Thai was willing to chuck the BratBikes into the bed of their pickup and haul our sorry arses, not to mention our gear. We decided to lunch first and then evaluate our options.

Directly across from the border within the police compound there was a very happening little restaurant. The proprietor seemed to be a policeman himself. He bussed tables and greeted the mainly police clientele in uniform and gun while his wife served up lunch. Ours was a spicy green curry over rice. Caked with sweat and road dirt from the day’s ride, I still needed something to cool me down which came in the form of a popsicle shaped like a Volkswagen beetle. There was some satisfaction to eating the effigy of an automobile.

Sated by our lunch and my cathartic dessert we went in search of a ride to Hat Yai. No one at the border would give us the time of day, much less a lift. Compounding matters, some little black biting insects seemed to be captivated by our flavor, hovering around us nipping at our flesh. We were just about to set off by bike in spite of our state of exhaustion when two guys with a pickup said that they were leaving in a few moments and offered to drive us. Once our bikes were safely stowed in the back and we were situated in the luxurious bonus cab I noticed official looking badges, a police or military radio and a large gun in the glove box. I tried to offer them some remuneration for their trouble but they wouldn’t accept. We reveled in our good travel karma.

Short-lived luck it would be, for a few moments later we were back in purgatory at the train station in Hat Yai. Our intent was to train up to Bangkok to meet our friends and celebrate Andy’s big birthday. At the station we learned that it would be well past his happy occasion before we could take the train to Bangkok even in the worst class of service. There were simply no seats to be had. On our way to find a hotel we pondered our options and set out to figure out the best way there after settling in.

Neither of had really thought about how we would spend our break from riding nor how we would get to the States. In fact, I wasn’t at all sure that I’d come home for the break. While seeking alternative transportation to Bangkok we landed outstanding deals on round-trip tickets to Los Angeles and snapped them up. At that agency the owner told us of the best way to get to Bangkok in lieu of the train. She highly recommended the super luxurious VIP 24 overnight bus there.

Now that we’d settled on a cure for our logistic woes we were ready to celebrate. A trip to the mall was in order. There we snarfed pizza and ice cream and observed the native Thais and Malaysian consumer tourists scooping up bargains. It was a novel thing to see actual consumption in fiscal crisis ridden Asia.

A leisurely walk through town took us by a country western bar where a Thai band rehearsed a rather tattered version of "The Gambler". We slugged down a couple of beers listening to the lead singer stumble on the r’s and l’s that dot the lyrics before setting down his guitar. On our way back home to our hotel we wandered the busy streets lined with vendors selling all sorts of wares. A surprising number of shops offered the services of women who would cut hair or massage you as a prelude to some less pure act. We somehow managed to avoid their beckoning. Somewhat later in front of our hotel a tuk-tuk (a small three-wheeled vehicle, part Vespa scooter, part bus) driver offered to take us to a girlie show.

He grinned when we said boys would be more interesting to us, consulted his fellow drivers and whisked us off to a bar. It was just ten as we arrived and the place was just opening for business. We sat at a table and watched the boys arrive for work. Each had a white tee-shirt with a red round button with a number on it in order to make it easier to make a selection. Neither of us was entirely comfortable with the experience but managed to stay through a rather stiff (no pun intended) and tame go-go boy show that also featured a transvestites. As with all TV shows this one was hosted by a rather rotund drag-queen with a sharp tongue who made the rounds in the audience, embarrassing patrons of the dimly lit bar. We narrowly escaped the bar shortly afterwards without the company of boys with white shirts and numbers.

After a day of errands and web publishing we set off on our night voyage to Bangkok. The bus was standard issue, save that the seats were huge, reclined a long way and there were only 24 of them. With only two dozen passengers it was easy to find room for our bikes below and the driver only exacted a two dollar bribe from us to take them. We’d opted to take a public bus instead of a private one. We’d been warned that the private bus drivers are rewarded for the speed of their trip while the public bus drivers didn’t really care how long it takes to get there. The choice between a white-knuckle ride and a calm slow one seemed obvious to us. Still there were many surreal moments during the trip. One of which was our dinner stop at a humongous gas station cum restaurant. There we watched swarms of insects hover around the fluorescent bulbs lighting the parking lot while eating our dinner. We were seated at a table with the women on the bus, while the men-folk sat at another. Somehow they decided that we’d be better served in the company of the ladies as opposed to the tooth-picking, spitting and smoking men.

After dinner we settled in for the night and tried to sleep the next eight hours to Bangkok. Imagine sleeping in a lazy-boy recliner during a 7.9 Richter Scale earthquake and you have some idea of the lack of comfort. The constant din of horns blowing and jerky movements of the mammoth bus weaving in and out of traffic further complicated getting a good night’s rest. This would be one of the last times I would say to myself, "I can do almost anything for 14 hours." I still can’t decide whether I dreamed one incident or whether it really happened. I awoke to what I thought was the sound of everyone on the bus screaming, the bus careening left then right and finally a vacuumey sensation of a big truck passing in the opposite direction too closely. Andy slept through the entire thing whacked on Halcyon and couldn’t confirm or deny the event.

As the sun rose over hazy Bangkok we arrived at the largest and busiest bus station I’d ever seen. Regardless of our VIP status the bus crew wanted to be free of us and fast and were unceremoniously dumping our chattels onto the pavement as we exited. Andy felt more ready to face the busy Bangkok Bus Station than I and went in search of a ride to our hotel. Neither of us were feeling composed enough to face rush hour traffic after a night of little sleep. He’d found a ride for us in a pickup truck. Thank god we are again in a place that is civilized, where everyone drives a pickup, not unlike, say, Texas. We’d find another commonality between Brownsville and Bangkok very shortly.

As Andy was doing the final haggle for the price of our trip to central Sin City I stood across the street near the pickup truck guarding our bikes. A few feet from me a car stopped in traffic, two men dashed out and locked each other’s hands around the other’s neck in a death embrace. Three hysterical women flocked out of the car crying, screaming and frantically trying to separate the two. The big surprise occurred when they finally did separate. Then the driver dashed back to the car and grabbed his Texas-sized handgun. Brandishing the weapon he yelled "mai dai chai lai hoy sem lok," or something to that effect --which most likely means "I’m gonna kill you, you sonnafabitch". Fortunately he couldn’t get a clean shot at his former companion, decided it wasn’t a good idea to shoot into a crowded bus terminal or was persuaded by the begging of his womenfolk not to fire and retreat to the car.

While all this was happening I contemplated stepping forward and wrestling the gun out of the madman’s hand. When I snapped out of this fantasy I found myself cowering behind the pickup shouting to Andrew across the street to seek shelter in back of something likely to take the speed out of a randomly fired bullet. Once back in the car with the girls, the man rolled down his window, again pointed the gun in the direction of the other gentleman and shouted more idle threats. Finally he tossed a pair of sunglasses out of the car which left me wondering if all that tussle was over eye gear?

In all our time in Indonesia --which was coming apart at the seams financially, politically and socially-- we never saw such drama. Only later in the day would we learn that we’d left Sumatra just before all hell broke loose, the port from which we left had been closed and intensive riots began that would soon lead to the resignation of their crook-cum-president, Suharto.

After all of this drama we’d scarcely need a cup of coffee to get the "old-juices" flowing; nevertheless, my eyelids felt a little heavy as we wove through morning Bangkok traffic. The city goes on forever and every street is filled curb-to-curb with cars, busses, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. A tuk-tuk is a hybrid vehicle. One-part Vespa scooter on steroids and one-part Indonesian bemo. (For those of you who don’t know what a bemo is, it is a pick-up truck that is covered and has facing bench seats in the bed.) The bravest and most rushed commuters opt to take motorbike taxis to their destination. You can only imagine the antics of these daredevils.

Upon our arrival at our rather luxurious accommodation the bell staff asked if they could store our bikes and for how long. We looked at one another and said simultaneously, "three weeks." Without batting an eye they said, "very well then," and walked off with them in a very dignified manner in their starched white outfits. Our friend Scott had booked us into what seemed to be the best hotel in Bangkok. Named after the ancient capital of Thailand, Sukhothai, it was filled with treasures old and new. Frankly, the elegance of the place was startling after our rather Spartan weeks on the road. Most shocking was the buffet breakfast that featured the highlights of breakfasts from all continents. Andy was most drawn to the pain au chocolat and thick European coffee.

Despite our rather adventurous morning and restless night we were amazingly productive. We published the website, did our email, got visas for Laos, did yoga with Linda on tape, walked around Pat Pong (avoiding touts pitching Ping-Pong shows, and they are not talking about table tennis) and, most importantly, discovered the seven scoops for 99-baht sale at Haagen-Dazs. We even stayed up late enough to welcome Ubai and Scott from Indonesia with a little excursion into Bangkok’s nighttime underworld. We conked out before the duo from Jakarta but arose dutifully the next day only to revel again in the Sukhothai’s fabulous breakfast. Scott had promised to show us "his" Bangkok or at least a little taste of it before I sped off to LA for my friend Dante’s birthday. It was a tough decision to leave Andy to celebrate his alone with Scott and Ubai, but I felt he was in good hands. There probably aren’t enough adjectives and verbs to describe their carryings-on while I flew for the next 18 hours and I’ll leave it to Andy’s discretion what to share. Rest assured, Scott showed him a good time.

Back in the US I spent most of my time in a funk, missing our trip and wondering why I’d left Asia. Make no mistakes, I had a great time celebrating Dante’s 40th, seeing all of my friends, making new ones and visiting with my family. The break just seemed badly timed. Part of the problem is that I’d agreed to go for a job interview during the break. That process got me too close to the mental barrier I’d agreed not to cross. Pondering what I might do after all of this is done. Andy’s trip home was largely spent doting on his lovely son and having fun with the rest of his family. They all somehow managed to collect in New York --a miracle given the hectic travel schedules of that clan.

Making an offering for good luck on the road

 

Andrew enters his sixth seven-year cycle with blessings from nine monks.

Dante's birthday dinner in L.A.

 

Multi-chedied Wat Pho

 

Reclining Buddha

Back to Thailand (f)

I never really rested during our time in the States. When Andy finally rejoined me in LA and we boarded our flight back to Bangkok I was more than relieved to be returning. Still, there were a few concerns --not the least of which was my right eye. It would look more at home on the hunchback of Notre Dame than on me. A clogged oil duct had inflamed and infected the upper eyelid to the point that it looked like there were two eyeballs under there instead of the usual one. Andy kept trying to reassure me that no one really would notice, which I found hard to believe.

I knew my eye looked really ugly when even the clerk at the Vietnamese Consul’s office was kind to us. She agreed to have our visas to us in only three days and promised half-heartedly that they would be ready on Saturday, and if not then, well at least by Monday.

Presented with the opportunity to hang out in Bangkok, we decided to become tourists. Our first outing was to the river for a boat-bus ride up the Chao Phraya. The skinny boat barely touched the dock long enough for the exiting passengers to jump off and us to jump on before gunning its motor and heading to the next stop. Cutting through the wakes of the other boats I watched the boat flex and twist, looking down its length as we sped to our destination. I wondered what it would be like to commute like this.

It wasn’t long after we hopped off the boat that we saw the dirtier side of Thai tourism. A very friendly guy came up to us and started "helping" us find our way about town. He told us that Wat Pho was closed for a Buddhist holiday and we were better off going by tuk-tuk to the Golden Mountain shrine by way of the Bangkok Trade Center and return in time for the re-opening of Wat Pho. We could have the whole expedition for just under a dollar for both of us. Something smelled. We asked if we could just see the shrine and return, but he indicated that it was part of the deal to shop at the center. Now it became clear, the driver would get some kickback from the center if he would bring unsuspecting tourists to the shopping area. We declined and carried on to the shrine. Miraculously, Wat Pho was open and relatively uncrowded. No surprise; most tourists were probably shopping their brains out at the Bangkok World Trade Center. The highlight of the wat was the whopping 46 meter long golden reclining Buddha. There we lit candles and incense for our ailing friends. Speaking of injury, I managed to burn my right forefinger rather severely during this act of charity before we set out for the royal palace. Surprisingly, several tuk-tuk drivers told us that it too was closed. We became somewhat less polite to the World Trade Center hawking pests. After walking about the grounds we completed our tourist extravaganza by visiting the museum (which was also "closed" according to the helpful tuk-tuk drivers). The museum was a little tired; it was often hard to see the point of many of the intricate dioramas through the mammoth dust bunnies forming in the display cases.

On Saturday our visas did indeed come through from Hanoi and we were ready to go just as I was becoming accustomed to Bangkok. The thought crossed my mind to tell Andy that they hadn’t just so I could have a wild weekend in the big traffic jam. Instead we packed up and checked out of the Sukhothai. The staff at the hotel seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief as we rode off on our bikes. They had likely had enough of our bikes clogging their baggage room and of our complaints over their woefully inadequate phone system (mainly due to the incompetence of the operator). The sky darkened and claps of thunder rang in the distance as we rode to the train station. We soon learned that it was in fact the rainy season as we collected a few drops during the last kilometer of our ride.

At the station we found the baggage car and loaded our bikes. Our assigned third-class seats were, of course at the polar opposite end of the mile-long train, making it impossible for us to check on them during the trip and leaving us wondering how we could possibly get them off at our whistle-stop in Phitsanulok. Seated in front of us on the train was a monk who was upset over how much overhead baggage space we were taking despite the fact that he had but one little briefcase with him. It was stuffed full of what looked to be a publication called "Monk’s Life" that sported pages and pages of catalogs of rare and valuable Buddha images, monk hair styles, monk couture, fitness for monks…. Somehow the bikes made it safely and we managed to get them both off before they inadvertently sped off to Chiang Mai without us.

Phitsanulok (f)

Waiting at the train station was the friend-of-a-friend who’d agreed to be our guide in Phitsanulok. He’d recently returned from the States after ten years there. His parents had convinced him to return to run the family Mercedes dealership and bus company after the end of a relationship in the LA area. Kosit escorted us to our hotel and took us out for a late dinner while telling us his life story and making plans for our tourist adventure the next day.

After dinner we examined Phitsanulok’s limited Saturday night entertainment opportunities. One seemed very curious to us, the flying vegetable. At one riverside food stall recently fried vegetables (what the Thais call morning glory, similar to Chinese broccoli) are hurled fifteen meters horizontally and three meters up to a guy who catches them with a plate and then serves them to the waiting customers. Not surprisingly there are several servings of the UFV’s hanging from the nearby electric wires. This is a sport to be taken seriously added Kosit, "even the princess has come here to catch flying morning glories."

On our way to the saddest hotel cocktail lounge I’d been to in some time, we made a little detour to have a riverside walk. There the excitement of Phitsanulok took on an even sadder dimension. Tens of people were standing on the bridge and by the riverside watching policemen and divers drag the river for a drowning victim. Andy became caught up in the whole thing and kept demanding that we stay in order to see the body extracted from the river. We finally persuaded him to leave not before he admitted that he’d be able to stay and "watch this sort of thing all night." The cocktail lounge featured a singer that would be more at home in a karaoke bar, and after a mai tai there we hustled off to our hotel room for a good night’s rest.

The next day we began at the local shrine that houses the second most revered seated Buddha in Thailand, the first being the misnamed Emerald Buddha in Bangkok (misnamed because it is made of jade). While lighting candles and incense there I noticed that the burn I’d suffered at the reclining Buddha had miraculously healed. It was there also in the parking lot that Kosit revealed that he wanted to sell the businesses and move back to the States or Bangkok. Small town life was proving too challenging for him mentally. Case in point, at breakfast with us his father showed up and joined us. This would not normally be a problem, but Kosit’s family does not know of his sexual orientation and would likely not latch onto the idea of the heir to their businesses being gay.

Kosit took us to a massive waterfall, huge not in height but in volume. We hiked around, discussed our and his situation and then returned to Phitsanulok to visit the much-touted Buddha casting factory and folk museum. It was remarkable to see them casting three meter high seated Buddhas that would sell for 96,000 baht once covered with gold leaf. (there are 43 baht to the dollar at writing). Before leaving us to rest before dinner, Kosit helped me satisfy my craving for a traditional Thai desert. In the market we purchased sticky rice, mango and sweetened coconut milk that I mixed together for my afternoon snack. Andy and Kosit also treated me to my first actual taste of durian. Heretofore I’d only had durian candy and ice cream but not the real McCoy. The taste is great but the texture and smell are a little much for anyone to take. Most hotels in Asia have signs that strictly prohibit guests from bringing the foul smelling fruit into their rooms for fear of permanent contamination. After a riverside dinner with Kosit we said our farewells. Before parting he made sure that we had a connection in the next town, a friend from school who had also been in exile in the states, Phit Chai (pronounced like "pee shy" and meaning "older brother" in Thai)

Kosit, our Phitsanulokian pal

 

"Wanna buy a Buddha?"

Fred displaying his new bike in Old Sukhothai

 

A postcard view of Sukhothai

8 June, Phitsanulok to Sukhothai, 65km, (a)

Like everywhere else we’ve been in Asia, rush hour starts early in the Thai hinterland. At six-thirty the streets of Phitsanulok were clogged with stinky cars and motorcycles –not a bicycle in sight in this prosperous provincial capital. The inadequacy of our maps (and our Thai language skills) became apparent after only a few minutes on the road. We stopped a few times to ask the way, but our inquiries were met with blank incomprehension mixed with unmasked astonishment. When we came across a big sign marked "Sukhothai" –our destination du jour—we bit the bullet and followed it back to the main road. National Highway 12 is no dream to ride on, but it had a wide, paved shoulder and the drivers seemed courteous enough. The flat terrain and a decent tailwind made the kilometers click off quickly, though the scenery was nothing to write home about. Flat rice fields stretched in every direction, many of them in the process of being plowed by unpicturesque mechanical oxen. As my legs did their thing, my brain spent its time daydreaming, thinking how Michael in Bangkok (whom we met through Scott in Jakarta) had set us up with Kosit in Phitsanulok, who had in turn hooked us up with Phit Chai in Sukhothai. I wondered if Phit Chai had a homo friend in Si Sachanalai (where we’re heading tomorrow), and imagined a sort of queer Underground Railroad that would provide us a safe haven each night as we headed north.

We made our destination by ten o’clock, just as the temperature was becoming unbearable. It wasn’t hard to find our bunker-like hotel, but our Thai sister was nowhere to be found. Our dreary surroundings made us wonder if we should investigate other lodgings, but we saw it best to spend our gay dollar at a gay-run establishment, however unsavory it was. In the stifling midday heat we wandered through the sleepy town and lunched in what has to be Sukhothai’s most upscale eatery, a restaurant with beautiful food and a commendable attempt at ambience.

Next door to the restaurant was a clinic, where we stopped to have someone look at Fred’s eye problem. While Fred was whisked away behind a door from behind which children’s screams could be heard, I sat in a plastic molded chair, watching Thai teenybopper t.v. All around me were other patients waiting…patiently. Most of them were old peasants, dressed in worn clothes, covered in exotic tattoos, skinny as bamboo and bent over from countless days of toiling in the fields. All their eyes were glued to the television monitor and I couldn’t help but wonder how their minds processed such visions of capitalist decadence. Fred eventually emerged with a scary patch over his eye, describing various tortures inflicted upon him by an evil female doctor. To assuage the pain, we treated ourselves to a samlor, a pedal-powered taxi. These look a lot like Indonesian becaks, only here the driver/pedaler rides in front. Another difference is that the first price quoted was so reasonable that we didn’t even bother to bargain.

After a nap we debated how to get out to the ruin-filled town of old Sukhothai, first imperial capital of the Thais in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Fred’s drugged state made us opt for a songthaew, like an Indonesian bemo but bigger and with a passenger compartment made entirely of wood. Once arrived, we rented clanky Chinese-style bikes and explored the extensive ruins, pausing often under roofs or trees to let rain showers pass. While we didn’t explore as much as we would have liked, we got a good feel for the vastness and serenity of the old city, which looks more like a huge tree-filled park. Moats and ponds surround numerous temple complexes, among which cows graze, monkeys chatter, birds tweet, snakes slither and village children play soccer.

Back in New Sukhothai, we tracked down the elusive Phit Chai, whose situation reminded us a lot of Kosit’s. Like Kosit, he went to school in Bangkok (where the two met) and continued his studies in the U.S., where he ended up staying for ten years. A casualty of the Asian tradition of filial piety, he moved back home two years ago to take over the family business from his ailing parents. Now he yearns for the life he had back in the States. "Seeing your bikes reminded me how I used to do so much back in Hawaii," he lamented in heavily accented English, "I used to go biking too, to the beach, to the gym, to the gay bars. But here, there’s nothing to do; I just sit here in the restaurant and gossip with my staff."

Later, I dined with our host while Fred fell into a narcotic stupor upstairs. The restaurant had been transformed into a kind of nightclub, featuring a sleazy and suspect act involving a talentless keyboardist and six provocatively-clad singers --five girls and a boy-- who sang in rotation. An obsequious, stunning-looking waiter brought us sad-looking plates of MSG-saturated Chinese food. Phit Chai pushed some of this around in his plate, and contemplated it with the melancholy expression that has essentially frozen into his face. "No one really comes here for the food," he said by way of apology, "mostly they come for the entertainment." Just what this last word meant was never elucidated, though I suspect that our fabulous hotel doubles as a bordello.

My host was eager to tell me about the queer scene –or lack thereof—in his native town: "One thing that you have to understand is that the idea of ‘gay’ versus ‘straight’ simply doesn’t exist in Thailand. Pretty much any guy here will go with another guy, or with a girl, or with a katheuw –you know, the guys who dress up as girls that you see all over Thailand." At this point Phit Chai looked deep into my eyes and said with conviction, "I hate katheuw." This came as somewhat of a surprise to me, considering that my host was pushing the envelope of masculinity himself. With his dyed, permed hair, his unisex outfit, and mincing, sissified mannerisms, Phit Chai is hardly butch, and could easily be taken for a katheuw in certain lighting situations. I suspect that his professed loathing of katheuw is really about jealousy. Perhaps Phit Chai would really like to go all the way and become a "lady-boy" himself, were it not for his social position in the town. Another possibility is that the local katheuw get more action than he does. Whatever the case, I restrained myself from asking, and stuck to safer ground. "Are there many katheuw in Sukhothai?" I asked. "Oh, lots," said my fey friend, "would you like to see?" With this last, Phit Chai’s eyes lit up and I knew I had no choice but to accept his offer for a ride around town on his motor scooter.

"It’s too early, they’re not out yet," he informed me as we slowly puttered across the bridge –a lady-boy hangout. When he turned the scooter around, I thought he was taking me back to the hotel, which he passed saying in a conspiratorial voice, "I know another place." So the town did have a gay meeting place after all, even though it was only a florist’s shop which doubles as a bar at night. Unfortunately, the owner was out of town (in Bangkok, bien sur) and no one was about save a few drunken drag queens. From here he took me on the loop road north of town, where we passed no fewer than three country western bars with names like "Boots and Saddle" and "Home on the Range." "Straight places," dismissed my guide, before turning off onto a rutted dirt road, upon which he maneuvered his scooter with an alarming lack of skill. I’m not sure what he was looking for here, but he kept scanning the shanty-like houses we passed. At one point we motored by a large wat that was a frenzy of activity. In his curiously inexpressive monotone, Phit Chai explained, "The highest monk here died two days ago and now people are coming from all around." Seconds later we were back at the hotel, the tour unceremoniously ended. A business card was thrust into my hand, accompanied by a vague promise to join us at breakfast. Phit Chai then hastily retreated upstairs to his room, like a woodchuck to its winter den.

9 June, Sukhothai to Si Sachanalai, 57km (f)

Once again we saw the sun rise and Phit Chai was nowhere to be seen as we settled our breakfast bill and got on our bikes. I was still a little woozy from the affair at the doctor’s office though my left eye was responding well to her treatment and the left looked marginally better. The new casualty was my stomach. Her prescription of strong antibiotics reduced my digestive tract to a gurgling acidy gorge rendering every meal into torture. We thundered down a quiet road over rolling hills with the wind at our back. The road was not remarkable, mostly passing by vast fields of rice paddy. Sukhothai to Si Sachanalai is evidently not a very safe place for dogs to travel; we saw more roadkill per kilometer (rpk) on this track than on any other since Australia.

We made it to our destination in under three hours, rolling up to the information center of Si Sachanalai Historical Park at just around 10. The information center itself was constructed in cooperation with UNESCO and was not really by any convenient entrance to the park. We had to take a two-kilometer detour just to find it. Once we did find it we were not impressed by the museum or the friendliness of the staff. The only person who made eye contact with us stood in front of a huge model of the site constructed of the materials you would use to build a model railroad. With a big wooden stick she pointed out things we should see knocking down fake trees and relocating temples as she dragged it along the surface of the model.

We stopped at a "resort " and bargained for a place to stay and were fleeced. A shabby little hut of a room with an air conditioner was nearly twenty bucks a night. It was the only real option near the ruins so we settled for it. After a long luxurious nap and lunch we were biking through the park past pretty spectacular ruins of temples and Buddhas. The site was far less restored than the previous day’s but they seemed somehow more interesting. Perhaps it was because we were the only folks in the park. As we entered we caught a glimpse of our first elephant. It was galloping through the park past a big stupa supported sculptures of elephants.

After a turn around the park including a hike up to the top of a 28-meter high stupa, we traveled north along the Yom River past more random ruins, huts and smiling Thais. One memorable ruin was that of a massive pair of pottery kilns shaped like giant zucchini set into a little mound. On closer inspection the mound turned out to be made mostly of discarded pottery shards. This region in Thailand was long known for the quality of its pottery and derived revenues from its export.

As the sun set we pedaled past our hotel and stopped at a little restaurant, spending the last moments of the day eating while we watched the dusk light play on the ruins of a temple and kids kicking soccer balls and dreaming of the World Cup.

Lotus-stupa in Si Sachanalai

 

Elephant temple

Temple of the dancing drag queen

 

Fred as monkertainment

10 June, Si Sachanalai to Sawan Kholok, 48km (a)

It felt positively luxurious to sleep through dawn this morning, rising at the decadent hour of seven. The "American Breakfast" at our hotel was a disappointment, consisting of two inedible, undercooked eggs, a slice of dubious-smelling, foul-tasting canned ham, and a small glass of fake orange drink.

We set off to explore more of the ruined twin cities of Si Sachanalai and Chialiang. Heading south this time, we stumbled across a number of exquisite temples, each distinct in its style. From explanatory placards, we learned to distinguish "Sukhothai" architecture and statuary from "Lopburi" and "Khmer-influenced." We also visited a strange little underground museum housing nothing but excavated skeletons.

Further downstream was the most impressive –and oldest—of the temples we had seen. Built before Sukhothai –Thailand’s first dynastic kingdom—it featured a high Khmer style stupa and a massive Buddha statue. We parked our bikes at the statue-studded gate leading to the complex, on the grounds of a still-functioning wat and next to a mentally unbalanced katheuw (Thai drag queen), dancing lavishly to the music playing in her head. From atop the temple’s lofty stupa we were still able to distinguish the smear of scarlet lipstick on her wizened face, and her swaying bony limbs jutting out from her handmade skirt and blouse –all in all a chilling sight.

After biking past numerous other ancient wats outside the old city walls, we once again penetrated the heart of the park and sought out the quietest and shadiest place we could find for a yoga session. We hadn’t gotten very far into our taped routine when a pickup truck full of monks pulled up nearby. At first the saffron-robed brethren maintained a respectful distance, but soon curiosity got the best of them and they literally surrounded us, chomping on snacks and chattering in excited, amused voices all the while. Now I know what a performing seal at the circus feels like.

A heavy layer of clouds made it possible to ride during the middle of the day. As much as we liked the laid-back atmosphere of Si Sichanalai –where it’s easy to forget you’re living in the twentieth century-- we wanted to escape the evil spirits at our "resort" and get a taste of a small Thai town. Sawan Kholok was on the way to Laos and fit the bill nicely. The road there was uninspiring but lined by shady trees. The kilometer markers counting down the remaining distance to town caught the majority of my attention in what could definitely be classified as a boring ride. We pulled into town at the apex of the day’s heat cycle and were relieved to be offered a room with air conditioning. The clock told us it was one p.m. –time for a nap.

When we emerged from our cool cocoon a few hours later, we took a stroll around the funky little town, through its vast and bustling market and along its gritty riverside. The most astonishing thing about Sawan Kholok is how virtually all the buildings are made entirely of wood, making us wonder what would happen if a fire broke out.


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