Triplogue - Thailand II

11 June, Sawan Kholok to Chat Trakan, 133km (f)

Heavy clouds blanketed the morning sky, casting a gray pale on everything. Only my yellow tinted sunglasses cut through the glare and somehow brightened the day that started with a miscommunication between Andy and me. And with our limited Thai, Andy and I weren’t the only ones who had trouble understanding one another today...

The really interesting thing about the morning was my realization of the scale of rice production in Thailand. We rode past acres and acres of huge fields filled with heavy equipment dealing with the production of this staple. Still the Thais rely on tested and true methodologies like letting ducks forage for the rice that the harvesters missed. The only difference, again, is the scale. Instead of a single herder watching after a dozen or so ducks as we saw in Indonesia there were tens of herders with thousands of the little feathered (and tasty!) beasts.

Thai was coming to us as easily as Polish had in Eastern Europe, so asking for directions and following road signs was not as easy as it could have been. Most conversations resulted in both of us being confused and somewhat frustrated. Judging from the number of giggles elicited, some of our questions must be pretty funny. This day all of our three maps had different roads and towns listed so we were doubly (or perhaps triply) confused. Though the clouds stayed with us through just before lunch we were hot and tired by the time we stopped. We lunched and played backgammon at a little food stall while the owner broadcast his boombox and his croonings over a huge public address system throughout the town which was little more than a crossroads.

There were fifty or more kilometers to go and the day had gotten hotter not cooler while we rested.

Just a few hundred meters from town another miscommunication resulted in a blow-up between Andy and me that was so profound we weren’t even speaking with one another. A few yards later and we’d resolved it, we wouldn’t ride together again ever and split up our common belongings. We met a few times during the next kilometers with the same result. Some thirty kilometers down the road at a crossroads we met again and decided to ride together to Chat Trakan and come up with an amicable solution when we had cooled down and had a shower. In Chat Trakan we were told there was no place to stay in town, only in the National Park ten kilometers away.

Our long ride and argument had eaten up the daylight and we’d be hard-pressed to make ten more clicks before dark. Luckily on the edge of town we found an industrial-strength tuk-tuk and hired it to take us the remainder of the way. When we reached the park we were told that there was no place to stay and only after insisting some cabins became available. At first the commander of the National Park Outpost demanded 500 baht for the night. We were in no position to barter but I did anyway and got the price down to 400 for the mosquito ridden wood hut near a waterfall. After having a wash we walked into a village a few kilometers away and found a storeowner who cooked us some noodles while we talked about the day’s misunderstandings. A little udon and egg later we had pretty much patched things up and would ride again the next day.

(If you hadn’t realized, this is a really glossed over version of what was one of the worst days of any of our rides. At least we are now laughing about some of the petty and angry things.)

Taking a pause between arguments


Shortcut to the waterfall

The rainy season cometh


Busload of agoutis

12 June, Chat Trakan to Dan Sai, 98km (a)

It could have been the oppressive heat, or the residue of our arguments that had kept me up all night, but I think the tokeh was to blame. The word is the same in Thai and Indonesian, and refers to a large species of gecko with an even larger mating call. After many months in Southeast Asia, we’ve grown pretty much accustomed to their nighttime cries, but last night’s tokeh didn’t budge from its station inches from our window, and its cry was peculiarly flat; was it sick, brain-damaged, speaking another dialect?

Whatever the case, I was hardly a bundle of energy this morning, my second in a row without coffee. Rather than hop right onto our bikes, we decided to check out the nearby waterfall on foot. It was a sturdy little hike at such an early hour, but well-rewarded with a view of a perfect little waterfall spilling down a concave cliff into a natural swimming pool.

The pedal back down through the valley to town –ten kilometers away—was exhilarating in the golden morning light and relative cool. Children on their way to school jammed every conveyance, the braver ones yelling "hello" to us. Breakfast was a plate of tasty fried rice for me, and a spoonful for Fred. I found myself feeling genuine concern over his lack of appetite. It had been three days since he’d eaten a proper meal and his scrawny body must be burning up all his reserve calories with all the riding we’ve been doing.

We groaned in unison on our way out of town when we passed an attractive little building with a sign in front. "Guest House" it said, eliciting instant fantasies of the night that could have been, in a comfortable bed, in a cool room, a real meal in our bellies. Minutes later, Chat Trakan had disappeared and we were surrounded by totally gorgeous countryside, pedaling through a verdant valley bordered by jagged cliffs. I thought to myself how I could bike through Thailand forever and never tire of it.

This sentiment changed radically, however, as we toiled over twenty-some kilometers of gravel road, in the process of being upgraded. I did what I normally do when enduring unpleasant riding situations, namely, shut off my brain. My thoughts were jarred back to reality only while climbing a particularly steep hill, riding over bone-rattling bumps, or being hailed by friendly members of the road crew –who yelled at us: "Pai nai khap?" (where are you going?). After over an hour of inhaling red road dust and submitting my taint to unspeakable tortures, I thought to myself that I was really ready for the road construction to end. As if on cue, pavement reappeared, smooth new heavenly pavement that made the last kilometers into Nakhon Thai a pleasure. On our way into town we passed a sign marked "Get House" and I proposed to Fred that we stop for a nap to avoid riding in the noontime heat. He agreed in a heartbeat, and soon we found ourselves in a simple little room with a wobbly ceiling fan.

We were already awake when the alarm rang at two-thirty, sweaty and hungry. Outside in the sunshine it felt like a blast furnace. While enjoying a late lunch at the bustling little town’s main intersection (Fred ordered a small plate of steamed rice and barely gave it a nibble), we were surprised to see a farang pull up across the street on a motorcycle. Like all whitefolk we’ve been seeing on the road, it was a male of the species, overweight and accompanied by a young Thai girl –only in this case the girl was massively pregnant. We ambled over to say hello, and friendly Jean-Pierre introduced himself, a permasmile affixed to his pudgy face. He said he split his time between Switzerland and a little village several kilometers to the west of Nakhon Thai. He presented his wife, Nit and told us that the longer he spends in Thailand, the less he understands about the place. He thought we were nuts to be riding in such heat ("normally it doesn’t get this hot," he said –to encourage us?) and Nit kept wishing us a "good holiday!"

The road out of town was meltingly hot. I had neglected to fill my water bottles, and our first attempts to find cold water were unsuccessful. Convenience store fridges were opened to reveal Coke, Fanta and any number of Thai energy drinks, all of which fall under the generic term "nam", meaning water. This was frustrating, since we’d had no problem finding actual H2O anywhere else, and today was when we (or at least I) needed it the most. Finally, at about the sixth stop, we caught a glimpse of some familiar plastic water bottles in the back of a fridge, right after the shopkeeper had told us he didn’t have any ("mi mai"). Guzzling down the precious liquid in giant gulps, we noticed dark clouds approaching and heard ominous thunderclaps. Had we known what lay ahead we probably would have turned back, but instead we blithely pedaled off up the hill-studded valley.

At first the climb seemed manageable. It followed the course of a mountain stream, alternately jumping skywards and flattening off. But after a few kilometers like this the incline became steadier, relentless even. Motorists would pass us giving the thumbs-up sign, to which I was tempted to respond with a thumbs-out sign, begging for a lift into town. This sentiment deepened as fat raindrops began to fall. When a bright rainbow began to form in the sky ahead of us, I took it as a sign that we were nearing the summit –a fantasy which gave me the strength to push on. When we finally did reach the top, I noticed how cool it had gotten. How high had we climbed anyway? After a brief argument concerning the disparity of our loads (I’ll admit to mild crankiness here), we were rewarded with a breathtaking ten-kilometer swoop all the way into Dan Sai, where we had no trouble locating the tiny town’s only lodging opportunity. Located behind a nondescript Thai-style strip mall, our rest stop for the night was in a brand-spanking-new motel-style place. The manager of the place, a young woman who also ran a tailor shop in the strip mall, spoke one sentence of English of which she seemed immensely proud. "Room air 500 baht, room no air 400 baht," she repeated several times as if she had been waiting months for the opportunity to practice the phrase. While the prices seemed a bit out of bounds, we went whole hog and rewarded the day’s sweaty efforts with air conditioning. It felt like heaven.

13 June, Dan Sai to Kaeng Khut Khu, 131km (f)

Our night in the Thai version of a Motel 6 was hardly restful for me. My stomach was still acting up, the crackling noise the plastic wrapping over the mattress made and the constant wail of dogs fighting outside combined to make it a restless night. Still when the alarm went off at 5:30 we dutifully arose, packed and departed. Regrettably we made a wrong choice for breakfast. It took over an hour for our restaurant to prepare fried rice. They’d run out of eggs and sent their daughter down the street for a new supply. She must have forgotten to leave breadcrumbs for herself in order to find the way home because it took a very long time for her to return. My still-sour stomach tolerated the meal better than the last days, and for that I was happy.

While we were waiting we took advantage of the time to try out our ever-expanding Thai vocabulary with the owner of the café and his family. His wife found our dictionary/phrasebook especially amusing.

The first kilometers after breakfast rolled easily underneath Siegfried and Roy. The wind blew us along over gently rolling terrain up a broad valley past various crops and jungle. It was apparent that we were in the sticks because more and more people left their houses walked outside and stared at us as we passed. Some were brave enough to say "hello"; thankfully, none said "hello mister."

We stopped for a drink in a little village store in Pak Man at around 8:30 and within a few moments of arriving a drunken dude invited Andy for a beer. The staff at the store knew him well and brought him a tall Singha before he even asked. He identified himself as the village English teacher and set forth to prove his command of the language. I couldn’t really tell if he was completely inept in our mother tongue or just too drunk to speak. We didn’t linger to find out, opting to hit the road before it got too hot to ride.

Soon after the sun was high in the sky and trying to burn a hole in our helmets. From the map it appeared that we’d be traveling down the Heung River, across which you could spit into Laos. If you are an avid BikeBrats reader you know that down-river is usually a good thing. In this case the valley was steep and the river wild so the road had to cut up and down the sides of the canyon, leaving us huffing and puffing up steep grades and whizzing down sharp descents, dodging potholes in the element-ravaged road.

We’d intended to make this a very short day, resting in Pak Huay at a guesthouse there. When we arrived around noon we had trouble finding the accommodation but did successfully find a riverside restaurant. After lunch we found the loose collection of substandard plastic-lined huts and decided that we’d press on (and press our luck) to Chiang Khan. In a misunderstanding we managed to leave town without a full set of water bottles and found ourselves twenty kilometers down one of the most challenging, hot and deserted roads we’ve ever experienced without water. Luckily we landed a few meters later on the outskirts of a backwards village where we managed to find something cold to drink and directions to Chiang Khan. We were back to being an out and out curiosity again. The entire village came out to gawk at our sweaty dirty brattishness. All the girls giggled, pointed at us and made fun of our Thai and general boorishness.

We made it back to civilization a few kilometers closer to Chiang Kahn. More farms and folks appeared by the road as the terrain became less rugged. By just before dusk we’d arrived exhausted. Though Chiang Khan was a cute little Mekong-side trading village we opted to go a little further south to a bend in the river for a comfort fix in the form of an air-conditioned bungalow on the river. After a dinner and ice cream in the night air we collapsed after one of the most challenging cycling days since the Texas Hill Country.

Local English teacher gives Andy a lesson


The chocolatey Heung

Angela and Kevin surrounded by mosquitos


Fred accepts Mama's technical advice

15 June, Kaeng Khut Khu to Sang Khorn, 105km (a)

Looking out over the mesmerizing expanse of the Mekong and gnawing on an energy bar at five-thirty this morning, I could think of little besides clambering back into bed. But once we had climbed back into the saddle and were whirring down the road I felt revitalized, energized from a full day of torpor (and sleep) in which we never wandered more than a hundred meters from our miniature riverside bungalow. It was a beautiful day and it felt fantastic to be back on the road.

We cranked through villages full of the familiar sight of uniformed kids on their way to school, who would interrupt their renditions of the distressingly ubiquitous World Cup song (if heterosexuality ever had an anthem, this would be it) to scream "HELLOHELLOHELLO" at us. Others would just shout "farang" (foreigner of European descent) to alert their friends and families of our passage --most likely to be the most talked-about event of the day. Fred thought these villages looked more prosperous than the others we’ve seen lately, but most of the housing looked pretty basic to me. I suppose in comparison to some of the villages discernible across the river in Laos, the Thai side looked like Switzerland.

Our largely shaded road squiggled right along the ever-wider river, seeking the highest points along its banks to avoid flooding in the rainy season (and not always succeeding, we were able to deduce from the road’s often washed-out surface). For many kilometers it was hard to make out the river from its vast swampy riverbed, and we wondered out loud what a sight it would be to see the river swell after a heavy rain.

In spite of numerous hills and without the aid of a tailwind, our average speed kept climbing through the day, peaking at 23.4km/hr (meaningless to you, astonishing to us). We made the usual stops at Thai-style seven-elevens, gulping down water and perusing the contents of the ice cream chest. I think Fred had his first icecreamy treat at something like seven-thirty, while I held off until at least nine. I should note here how these roadside groceries are all essentially the same both aesthetically and experientially. All are housed in garage-looking buildings that double as the shopkeepers’ homes. The living quarters are always clearly visible behind the shop, and the two spaces are never really delineated from each other. One or more glass-fronted cases of cold beverages are prominently displayed, while suspended from bits of twine hang various junk food items, household supplies, dried squids, candy and auto parts. Without fail a terrazzo picnic table graces the area in front of the shop, but as this is usually in the sun, we tend to loiter in the shade under a metal canopy just outside, next to tables holding eggs, motor oil, shallots, chilies, and houseplants. I can’t recall an instance where the proprietor of the shop hasn’t dragged out a pair of chairs or stools for us to sit on. The consistency of the experience is really quite amazing, uncanny even, making it very difficult to remember any specific stop, only the general experience. Usually we sit for a good quarter of an hour –longer if we’re severely overheated—making feeble attempts at communication with our gracious host (all we’ve really mastered in Thai are the numbers), providing entertainment for any villagers who happen by.

These stops tend to occur at twenty-to-thirty kilometer intervals, so we had already made three or four by the time we reached Sang Khorn, our intended stop for the night. Seeing a sign marked "Mama’s Riverside Lodge" we turned up a dirt road leading to nothing but a school. Just as we were about to turn back, a squat woman on a motorbike began frantically waving at us, pointing out a couple of other farang on bikes. We pedaled up to meet Kevin from South Africa, Angela from Canada, and Mama herself. They had just been watching a performance at the school concerning mosquito control. Kevin and Angela were hoping to ride out to the waterfall but had flat tires. We whipped out our pumps –which weren’t the right flavor, it turns out, and queried them about their situation. They had met in Taiwan, where both taught English for two years, and were now on an extended tour through Asia before moving to Japan for more teaching. Mama listened through all this before she gave her pitch: "Mama have nice bungalow for you, right on river." We agreed to at least check it out and have lunch there. "She’s a good cook," enthused Angela, "but the place is a little on the rustic side."

Rustic indeed. To get there we had to push our bikes through knee-high razor grass and cross a perilously flimsy bridge over a gorge. But Mama’s place –not much more than a patch of dirt with a few crooked huts—did have a great view of the river, and while I wouldn’t go out of my way to praise her culinary abilities, it was nice to order from a menu printed in English. Her personality is what sold us though. For someone who runs a guesthouse catering to foreigners, her English is appallingly deficient, but we found her manic, slightly unbalanced manner completely infectious, and as about as much entertainment as one can hope to find in a sleepy little village like Sang Khorn.

Much of the afternoon was spent lazing on the balcony of our little two-dollar hut, which featured that most prized of amenities: a hammock. When the sun lowered in the sky, I went down to the beach-like riverbank to watch locals interact with the mighty, muddy current. Kids swam noisily; old men fished with nets in the calmer eddies; motorboats went back and forth on mysterious missions to Laos. I observed a weedy bush full of butterflies for a while, then headed up for my fourth shower of the day.

When night fell, we were surprised that Kevin and Angela hadn’t reappeared. Then Mama arrived on her motorbike, puffing and sweating, her many layers of makeup melting on her face. Waddling up to us, she launched into a frantic account of the day’s unfortunate events: "Mama go police. Farang go waterfall, Thai people steal money, passport African boy. So bad so bad. Mama feel bad because Mama no say waterfall bad place. Here in village no problem, but waterfall many people poor, people steal. You want eat?" Here she pointed to Fred and said for the twentieth time today, "He too sa-kee-nee" and went on to advise him to be careful not to anger me, since I could so obviously beat him up.

After a while Angela and Kevin came moping back to camp. We shared a vegetarian dinner with them, listening to their woeful tale and offering assistance. I was surprised when Kevin lit up a joint right there at the dinner table.

"You don’t think Mama would mind?" I asked in a hushed tone.

"I doubt it, since she’s the one who sold me the dope," Kevin responded in his peculiar accent. "Everyone in Nong Khai told us to come here. Mama’s dope is famous throughout the Northeast of Thailand. She brings it over from Laos."

Falling asleep under the mosquito net later, I wondered if I’d discovered the key to understanding Mama’s peculiar brand of flakiness.

16 June, Sang Khorn to Nong Khai, 100km (f)

Mama’s last words before I shuffled off to our mosquito ridden hut last night were "oh, Mama market at 4:30, so no problem early breakfast." As we were leaving at somewhere around 7:30 (this is a late BikeBrats start) sweat rolled off of my brow, arms and legs. Andy’s burden was just a little heavier than normal. Ol, Mama’s grandson, had handed him a three-kilogram papaya just after breakfast and Mama wrapped it in newspaper and bound it with twine to the back rack of Andy’s bike. "It good in three or four days. Your take with you to Laos," were her words of goodbye. Andy groaned and I pushed ahead in order to cross the very rickety bridge in advance of him. I worried that it might collapse under the increased burden.

I couldn’t help but reflect on our stay at Mama’s and compare it to the very popular Thai television show "Nit Noi". Literally the show’s title means "A little bit", a phrase we are more than familiar with, especially helpful when describing our command of the local language. The show’s central character is an overweight little boy of around ten years. He lives in a little traditional village with his grandmother and, strange because most television shows feature the rich, is poor. Andy calls it a moralistic soap opera. Every episode seems to see Nit Noy (we are assuming this is the name of the little fat boy) go from glee to despair and back through every emotion in-between. Yesterday’s cast of characters and set of events could have easily been the plot of one of the episodes. On our evening walk through Sang Khorn every house we walked by during "Nit Noy" hour was tuned to the show and most families were gathered around watching. The lyrics and music of the theme song of the show are gratingly catchy and we often find ourselves humming it or applying new lyrics to it to describe a situation or insult one another.

Off-camera in our installment of "Nit Noy", Andy casually untied the carefully attached papaya (thank god the bridge did not collapse beneath him) and I gave it to some women who were frantically preparing food at a stand. They didn’t even miss a beat, as though a farang daily stops by with a giant papaya, the knife cut it and it was being grated up for a green papaya salad before we had clicked into our cleats and were on our way.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur until just before our arrival in Nong Khai. What I do remember of it was through a gauzy film of sweat and sunscreen. The sun’s heat threatened to blister our skin. I spent most of the morning in a near coma trying to forget that the temperature was hovering just short of 100 and humidity boiled from the Mekong. I wouldn’t be looking for a sauna when we arrived in Nong Khai. At each one of our water stops I did search for some possibility of fighting the Cokes for their spot in the fridge. Andy solved the problem by opening the door, standing in front of the icebox and pretending that he was having trouble deciding what to drink. We must have looked disgustingly hot and sweaty to the point of scaring people. Most kept their distance, and the ones brave enough kept muttering the same thing which must have meant "its hot" or "eeww, don’t sweat on me".

Somewhere along the way the Mekong widened until it was nearly a half-mile wide sea. Not unlike hot chocolate in color and temperature if not in taste. It rushed by us each time we stopped to take in the view of Laos across it. It had cut a broad flat valley to flow through so the ride leveled out substantially for the last 30 or so kilometers, making the ever increasing heat our only obstacle to making it someplace cool to shower and rest. Wet and irritable, we arrived at the Grand Hotel, where fifteen dollars gets you a luxurious room and breakfast for two. I tried not to drip sweat on the registration form or to notice that there was a pack of GAGs (giggling Asian girls) watching my every move. The ecstasy of a shower and shave after a tough ride and a few rustic days is incomparable. I derive immense satisfaction from watching the rivulet of road dirt, sunscreen and sweat roll of my body and swirl down the drain only to join the similarly colored Mekong.

Though we arrived at the hotel at just after noon we couldn’t be bothered to leave its air-conditioned comfort until just before sunset when the temperature was finally beginning to dip. Lunching and napping were the activities in our afternoon biathlon and even that amount of activity seemed a challenge. When we did leave the confines of the Grand we realized there was more to this border town than we’d thought. Certainly there was more traffic, which we dodged with considerable difficulty while having our walk about.

We walked to the Mut Mee guesthouse to find the reputed Internet café and try to arrange connecting, getting our mail and updating the site. There we met Michael, a very young-looking middle aged African American --whom I supposed to be a Vietnam veteran-- playing chess on the floor with a very young Danish boy named Kim. After I described our situation to Michael, Kim seemed to lose interest in his chess game. He soon told us that he’d just gotten back from Laos where he’d been cycling. He told us about riding for hundreds and hundreds and kilometers there and what to expect. He, like Angela and Kevin, described Laotians scooping water out of the Mekong boiling it and drinking the muddy mess and I flashed back on my shower.

Sunrise on the Mekong


Thailand's only bikepath

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