Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Chang Mai 3

Friends: Day four in Chang Mai and the fourth day of rain, and not just showers but torrential drenchings. When the heavens open here, they open but good. We're not the only ones concerned. The rainy season was supposed to have ended days ago. The locals have had a nearly daily dose of precipitation since April. They have had enough. These haven't been day long rains, so they haven't prevented me from going off on my bike. I've had two nice 60 mile circuits of the environs the past two days on my unloaded bike. Its been a pleasure to power into the wind on my unburdened bike and to feel the bike respond when I really start punching the pedals.

Laurie has had an equally satisfying time, shopping up a storm and indulging in two-hour massages. Esther took her to an institute with blind masseurs. Laurie could tell her navel ring, as well as her unorthodox bra straps, startled her masseur's fingers when he discovered them. Esther taught her the word for pain, though a grunted "ouch" conveyed the same message.

Our vocabulary has been increasing by leaps and bounds under Esther's tutelage. When we arrived we didn't know much beyond ice and thank you. We'd been bicycling nearly a week before we finally learned the word for toilet. If we got up from a restaurant and started looking around, we were generally led to the bathroom, but not everyone understood what it was we were looking for and we hadn't figured out a subtle form of pantomime for toilet, so on occasion we just had to wait until we got down the road.

A friendly guy at a service station, who was sitting out by the pumps at a desk taking money, was one of the rare people we've met with any fluency in English. He had sons studying in North Carolina and Germany and had been to the U.S. once himself. He rarely has the opportunity to speak English, so he was happy to practice on us, though he hardly needed any. Its rare for him to even hear English, as only occasionally do the Thai TV stations show American movies or television shows. He wanted us to explain the expression "between a rock and a hard place." After telling him we had a few questions for him. "What is the word for toilet?," we asked. He responded asking, "Do you know Hank Williams and his song 'Honky-Tonk Woman'? The first syllable for toilet is 'hong' like honky-tonk and the second syllable is 'nam' like in Vietnam. It is hongnam."

There was a lengthy letter-to-the-editor in yesterday's weekly English paper decrying the aggressive behavior of Thai drivers. And this just after I had written how cordial I found them to be, at least comparatively. The letter-writer complained how recklessly drivers change lanes and everything else drivers the world over complain about. Their aggressiveness and hostility are still quite moderate compared to drivers I have encountered in Greece and Brazil and Manhattan and just about anywhere else. Not once have we been startled, and only a couple of times have we commented that a driver was a little less than cordial. But motorists can't help but fume when they are grid-locked or bumper-to-bumper, as, all too often, is the case here.

At many of the stoplights each of the four lanes of stopped traffic is given their own green to accommodate the many right hand turning vehicles (as opposed to left in the US). This makes the wait at stop lights twice as long as normal with each lane getting every fourth green light, rather than every other. About a quarter of the traffic is motor bikes. At the red lights they all move to the head of the line between the stopped vehicles, as we too can do on our bikes, and speed out in front of the cars when the light changes.

Looking forward to getting on down the road. We'll be able to cope with rain if need be the next few days, but once we reach the unpaved roads of Laos, rain could stifle us. The weather seems to be very localized, so Laos could be plenty dry. We haven't had a drop when we've been pedaling yet, at least out in the country. And what rain I've been caught in the past two days on my own hasn't been unpleasant. And not a flat yet. Laurie is a good luck charm, as we didn't have any in Mexico either.

Later, George

Monday, October 28, 2002

Chang Mai 2

Friends: Last night Laurie and Esther and I had the pair of wooden benches in the back of one of the ubiquitous communal red pick-up truck taxis all to ourselves. Anyone can flag these taxis down, whether it is occupied or not, and negotiate a fare. Ten bhat (about a quarter) per passenger is the usual rate. When the taxi stopped to pick up a Buddhist monk wearing the usual bright orange robe, Esther and I quickly switched sides, so she and Laurie could be on one side opposite the monk. Monks avoid contact with women. Even if they should accidentally touch a woman, they'd have some absolution to perform. With the bumpy roads and sudden stops, there was a danger that he and Esther might brush against each other if they were seated on the same side.

We haven't seen as many monks as I thought we would, sometimes just two or three in a day, and usually early in the morning. Here in Chang Mai with its 300 temples, as many as Bangkok, monks are more common, but they certainly aren't a dominant presence. I saw quite a few yesterday morning at the base of Doi Suthep, waiting for a ride up. On my descent I passed one of those red pick-up truck taxis packed with monks. I was able to overtake the taxi , as I could take the turns faster than it could. The monks were quite gleeful, applauding and waving, as I caught up to them and went by. The monks come in all ages, from pre-teens to the elderly and are clean shave, head and eye-brows. Most Thai males sometime in their life serve a stint as a monk, for a couple of weeks or months. Only a few devote their life to it.

We've also ridden in a car several times on excursions to visit friends of Esther's beyond range of the taxis. Yesterday, Renee, a white-haired regal Tennessean about to begin collecting Social Security, drove us out to our luncheon. She lives in a condo on the 14th floor of a 16-story building. Her rent is $200 a month, the same as Esther pays for her house. Renee said she could never drive back in the States again, and not because of the difficulty of going back to left-hand drive, but because she has gotten so used to being able to make u-turns at will and drive generally as she pleases. She, like most of the ex-pats we have met, returns to the States every year or so. She has a son's graduation from medical school to attend next month. She missed the graduations of her two other sons, and since she has only three children, this is her last chance to attend one of their graduations. She's presently busy planning a local gala to raise funds to build a school for one of the nearby hill tribes.

When we returned to Chang Mai after lunch we went in search of the English paper the "Bangkok Press." We tried more than half a dozen stands. At each we were told "finished." It's a daily and has several sections with news of the world and of local interest. A story in Friday's paper said more than 400,000 cars will be sold in Thailand this year, up from the projections of 320,000. I'm not surprised. They are everywhere. The most inaccurate information I read before embarking on these travels was that 80% of Thailand's motorized vehicles are in Bangkok and once one left the city, there would be hardly any traffic.

Every city and the arteries leading to them have been clogged with traffic. At least the roads are first class and have service stations to match. When traveling the "super highways," as they are called here, we have to remind ourselves that we are in Thailand, and not the U.S . There are Shell and Texaco gas stations. Giant green signs, in the same format as those on U.S. Interstates, span the highways announcing exits and towns. But unlike the U.S., traffic drives on the left-hand side of the road and rage behind the wheel has yet to intrude upon this land. So far, the cursed automobile hasn't altered the pleasant Thai demeanor, other than to make them want one.

I successfully made a phone call to Esther the morning before we reached Chang Mai from 60 miles away with a local phone card, but I was thwarted later that evening when I tried to call her to alert her that we had reached our agreed upon meeting point a couple blocks from her home. Not all the pay phones accept phone cards, and I couldn't figure out what coins to use. After several minutes of frustration a young teen-aged girl came along and made a call beside one of the phones I had tried. I waited until she finished and showed her the number I was trying to reach. She took a one baht coin from her purse and dialed the number and then put in another one baht coin. I noticed she dialed the three digit area code along with the six digit local number, something I didn't think was necessary to do.

When Esther answered, she immediately handed me the phone and absolutely refused the two bahts I tried to refund her. And she was long gone when the phone returned one of the coins after I hung up. Esther said school children are taught to go out of their way to be helpful to foreigners. She gives her students assignments to have conversations or interviews with them. We later learned we could have been spared the pay phone hassle if we had known the people we frequently see at tables along the road with a large yellow "2 Baht" sign were offering phone service on a cellular phone. But then we would have missed out on another example of Thai hospitality.

Later, George

Sunday, October 27, 2002

Chang Mai, Thailand

Friends: One of the great joys of travel, and especially travel by bike, is visiting a friend after a week or more on the road. Laurie and I are presently enjoying that great joy in Chang Mai thanks to Esther, a friend I have worked with at the Telluride Film Festival for the past decade. Esther took up residence in Chang Mai seven years ago, but returns to Telluride every year for the film fest. She is one of its longest associates, having been involved in each of its 29 editions except the first. She was among the first wave of counter-culturists to move to Telluride in the '70s when it was a virtual ghost town and was just about to be reborn as a ski town. She teaches English here and lives the good life in an exotic two story three-bedroom wooden house in the walled and moated old inner city.

It is a tradition among Thais to set aside a room in their house in case the king should be in the neighborhood and need a place to stay. Esther has several photos of the king and queen on her walls, as do most Thais, including an odd one in her kitchen with another king, Elvis. The King, Queen and Elvis are engaged in conversation, sitting in the first row in a movie theater in Germany. Esther doesn't have a room specifically set aside for the king, but he could be assured of the royal treatment based on how well Esther has treated us since we arrived a couple of days ago. Her great hospitality reminds me of the countless times I have shown up at my esteemed cycling friend Siegi's door step in Toronto and Puerto Escondio on my bike, announced and unannounced, and was welcomed like some potentate. Laurie and I will have plenty to revel over as we reminisce about our time with Esther when we get back on the bikes and head for Laos. Such hospitality is never forgotten and forever gladdens the heart.

Chang Mai is at an elevation of 1,000 feet so its hot here, though not as beastly as further south. Doi Suthep, a 4,000 foot mountain, overlooks this bustling city of 200,000. I bicycled it yesterday on the recommendation of one of Esther's many ex-patriot friends, who have embraced us as warmly as Esther. Its upper reaches were in the clouds, and it was cool enough that I could see my breath at its summit. A royal palace resides just below the summit and four kilometers below it a Buddhist temple. One reason I made the ten mile, 3,200 foot climb was that I was told I'd see many other cyclists riding the road on a Sunday morning. There were a handful, but nothing like the thousands I encountered in Medellin, Colombia one Sunday morning many years ago. The memory of being a part of that unexpected mob is a recurring memory that still thrills me. The twenty or so cyclists I encountered struggling up or flying down Doi Suthep each brought a smile to my face, though I had been hoping for more. There were many many more Thais and a handful of tourists at the palace and the temple, however, and plenty of food stalls.

Where there are people in Thailand, you can count on food being sold in carts or small restaurants with two or three tables. I was delighted to find a food Esther had introduced us to the day before in the market--something she calls a Thai Power Bar, though I will refer to as an Esther Bar in her honor. It is a foot-long length of bamboo filled with sticky rice and coconut milk and a few beans. One peels off the bamboo to reveal the tasty and nutritious food stuffed inside. We had never noticed this item before, and, if we had, we never would have guessed what it was. They are generally sold in bundles of three and look like dynamite. Unless we saw someone eating one, we never would have guessed what it was. Its Thai name is kowlum.

Esther has been a bottomless source of such information, and, teacher that she is, thrives on sharing it. We commented that we had seen showers at many of the service stations along the road. Esther told us that Thais shower so often, sometimes two or three times a day, that a common greeting among friends is, "Hello, have you showered yet," rather than the standard, "How are you." She remains fascinated and enthralled by all things Thai. She is known about town as the walking farang as she walks everywhere, unlike the locals, or foreigners, who prefer to use the ultra cheap motorized transport. Esther's house is off in a warren of narrow alleys. She has led us in and out in more ways than I can remember, always having something special or surprising to show us along the way.

Among Esther's many friends is Holly, a 42-year old woman who led bike trips for Backroads in Thailand and elsewhere for nine years until 9/11 of last year when all of a sudden the number of Westerners wishing to bicycle Thailand and Vietnam plummeted. Holly loves Thailand too much to leave. Her fluency in Thai has enabled her to get involved with several businesses. She still loves to bike, and, in fact, will be leading a trip in Vietnam in January for another company, her first since the Twin Towers fell. Laurie and I were privileged to be included in a monthly luncheon of Holly and Esther and two other ex-pat friends, Julie and Renee, yesterday, out at Holly's palatial house, a 20-minute drive out in to the country. Laurie and I could have listened to Holly's bicycling stories all day, but each of these women had plenty of fascinating stories to share.

They all encouraged us not to bother with the malaria medicine that Laurie had brought along. Holly thought that the northern border crossing from Laos to Vietnam was open, which will make getting to Hanoi easier than having to cross further south. We won't know for sure, however, until we get well into Laos. Holly's biggest concern was that we have warm enough clothes for northern Vietnam. She couldn't recommend a particular beach for R&R in Vietnam. She said most are aswarm with vendors trying to sell stuff and we'd have no peace. She gave us the good news, though, that the traffic is fairly minimal for several hundred kilometers south of Hanoi on the main coastal route and that the route was flat except for one 9.3 kilometer climb, less than the climb up Doi Suthep. Laurie has yet to acquire a fondness for climbing, so that was good news for her. Esther runs an import business as well and has been happy to take us around to the hundreds of shops in the night bazaar and elsewhere. There are many items of great beauty-- silver and textiles and carvings of Buddhas and elephants. Laurie is delighted to have plenty of time to shop and Esther is happy to do some perusing herself and to banter with the many friends she does business with. I have tagged along for a bit, but have enjoyed the opportunity to explore on my bike shed of its gear.

Later, George

Thursday, October 24, 2002

Lampang, Thailand

Friends: Never has the handlebar tape on my bike been so soggy and squishy. Today we had three climbs of at least three miles each with a cumulative gain in altitude of nearly 5,000 feet in 87 miles. At our slow climbing speeds we weren't creating enough of a breeze to dry the sweat that was pouring off  us. It was running down my arms in rivers onto the handlebars. I wrapped a neckerchief around each brake hood to help soak up the sweat, but they were soon saturated too. It was by far our most demanding day--not only our most miles in a day, but also our first day of climbing. We knew we were in for a hard day so we ate a lot the night before and went to bed early, as if it were the night before a big game. We arose early and ate breakfast as we packed--me some pad thai left over from the night before preserved in my Tupperware bowl, and Laurie a mini-loaf of bread with peanut butter. It was the first bread we had found in a week.

We were on the road by 7:30, though we regretted we hadn't left earlier when we realized by mid-morning we were in for a serious race with the sun to the horizon before we reached our destination. Our first climb was more demanding than we anticipated, making us nervous about the next two. I put on my cycling shoes for the first time in our seven days of pedaling. Sandals had been just fine on the flats, but they would have had the balls of my feet burning today with the extra pressure I would be applying to the pedals on our climbs. It was nice that I had saved them, as they made my legs feel a little more powerful. There was no flexing on my pedal strokes. It was the strongest I had felt on the trip, thanks partially to four helpings of pad thai the night before, my first night of noodles rather than rice. Noodles give me more energy than rice, and since my diet had consisted mostly of rice dishes with some glop of a sauce, I hadn't been feeling as strong as I'd like until today. But today was the first day it really mattered.

Since we had only ten-and-a-half hours of light to cover 87 miles, we only took two breaks all day aside from a handful of brief respites to catch our breath on the extended climbs. And they were our two most enjoyable breaks of the trip. The first came after two-and-a half hours on the bikes at the summit of our first three-mile climb. We were surprised and delighted to discover a cluster of restaurants at the summit. It was almost too good to be true. We both had a bowl of noodle soup. I supplemented mine with some chicken. Our soft drinks came with a bucket of ice. At the higher elevation it didn't entirely melt during our 45 minute stop.

At our second break three hours later, a while after climb number two, we came upon an isolated restaurant. I scouted it to make sure it was open. They had no cold drinks, but they nodded affirmative to our favorite word "nanh ken" (ice) and brought out a small bucket. What luxury! After several minutes the elderly Chinese owner brought us a platter with five mini-bananas and said "free." It reminded me of a similar gift I once received in Mexico when biking in the Sierra Madres out of Puerto Escondido. I stopped at a small, rural restaurant not unlike this one, more as a place to rest and get out of the sun and have a drink, than to have anything to eat. I ordered a soda and munched on my own stash of peanuts, perfunctorily eating them one at a time. A few years later I stopped in the same restaurant while biking with my friend Lino. The restaurant owner told us a gringo cyclist had stopped in his restaurant a few years before and was so poor that he ate his peanuts one at a time, so he gave him some bananas.

I was repeatedly transported today to my travels in Latin America, as Laurie and I were treated to a continual chorus of friendly horn toots from passing motorists who were startled and thrilled to see a couple of farangs on bikes as they came around a hairpin turn. Not since Crissy and I bicycled through Guatemala in 1980, when gringos were still an oddity there, had I experienced such a welcome. Crissy and I would even catch motorists taking their hands off the steering wheel to applaud when they saw us. No applause here, but lots of upraised thumbs to go along with the friendly toots. We felt obligated to look at every oncoming motorist. If they were acknowledging us, we wanted to respond. We gave plenty of people an opportunity to flash an even bigger smile than usual. Even soldiers in the back of open air trucks waved and smiled when they passed us. The dogs too have only been friendly.

When we left our second restaurant of the day at 2:30, we had thirty-five miles to go and one climb. We knew we'd be cutting it close depending on how severe and prolonged the final climb of the day would be. We reached its summit at four, leaving us twenty-five miles to Lampang. We thought we would easily beat dark after an eight-mile descent in less than half an hour, but we had two more unexpected, somewhat gentle, climbs of a couple miles each. Both times we could hear a slow moving truck struggling up the climb that could offer drafting possibilities or even the possibility of giving us a pull if we could find something to grab hold of as it passed. I'm generally content to draft, rather than being pulled, and had in fact drafted a truck the last half mile up the first climb. Laurie had attempted neither, but was willing.

On the first of these last two climbs, the slow moving truck didn't catch up to us until after we had summitted. But on the second, longer climb, the truck we could hear grumbling up the hill overtook us less than half way up. After it passed I swung out into the middle of the road and immediately started drafting. Laurie then swooped in and grabbed on to a slight ledge at her shoulder height. It was a bold and courageous act, especially in her fatigued state, but it did not surprise me, knowing her spirit. I had briefed her on slightly speeding up as she latched on and to maintain a little speed so she wouldn't be jerked when the truck started pulling her. She executed the operation as if it were second nature. And she held on for better than a mile, upping our climbing speed from five miles an hour to eight, but, even better, giving her legs a break.

She was worried the driver might not appreciate her grabbing on to his truck, but he stayed well away from the edge of the road so Laurie would have plenty of space. She could see his assistant waving to her. It was a bit treacherous, holding her handlebar with her left hand and the truck with her right and just a few inches between her front pannier and the truck's rear wheel, but she held it steady. It was another great moment in her achievements on the bike. Now we're looking forward to more hills and more struggling trucks to latch onto.

We pulled in to Lampang just as dark was settling in. It was pitch dark by the time we had groped our way to a hotel by 6:30, eleven hours after we had begun our day. Exhausted as we were, we couldn't have been more exhilarated.  It was another great day on the bike.

Later, George

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Uterdit, Thailand

Friends: At last today we escaped the plague of four-lane divided highways that are plastered across Thailand. They have been inescapable. Even when we've sought out some of our map's secondary roads, they've been widened into four-laners. At least they all have wide shoulders that give us plenty of insulation from the speeding motorists. Those shoulders weren't intended for cyclists, as cyclists are an extremely rare species here. We've seen virtually none in all our miles either out in the country or in the cities. The bicycle is a symbol of poverty in countries with emerging economies. People abandon the bicycle as soon as they can afford a motorcycle. There are way too many of them. The less powerful, slower moving scooters and motor bikes join us on the shoulder of the road. But they are of no threat to us and treat us as kindly as everyone else does.

Today's most striking example of friendliness came from an eight-year old boy, who sat with Laurie and I on some steps as we ate our dinner overlooking a sprawling outdoor market of food vendors and a vast stage for various rock bands and other performers. We were the only farangs among the swarms of people. The boy wanted to shake Laurie's hand. After we finished our five baht (twelve cent) dishes of pad thai he scooped them up and gestured towards a kilo bag of cashews between us that we were nibbling. We offered him some. He shook his head and gestured more directly at the rest of our garbage, reaching to grab it, then taking it to a nearby garbage can.

We finally were able to bike on a lightly-traveled two-lane road today. It was even accompanied by a modest, plenty ample, shoulder. We have also left the standing lakes of water that flanked both sides of the road for much of our first 300 miles. We actually had forests and fields with cattle and potential camp sites if we desired.  Though we'd love to put our tent to use, we're discouraged by the steamy 90 degree heat. We'd stew but good in the tent and would face potential asphyxiation without the opportunity to bathe and wash our clothes. We wash everything we wear each night in the sink. We hang them on a clothes line of our bungee cords. All is dry by the morning, ready to get soaked again by our sweat.

If we were camping, we'd miss the lively night market that is a feature of every town and city. Its too hot for day markets. The cities become alive at night. In Phitsanulok we saw hundreds of people at two different locations engaged in outdoor aerobics after the sun had gone down. One gathering was along the river on a multi-tiered plaza. Old and young, male and female were all dancing in time to some fast-paced music, following the lead of a guy on a stage. It could have made for a Coke commercial worthy of the Super Bowl. Laurie and I would have loved to have joined in if we had any energy left.

We have left behind the miles of sandbags that have lined long stretches of the road to hold back the rising rivers and lakes. Tomorrow we face our first day of climbing. We are greatly looking forward to the highlands, but we are both a tad concerned about our energy levels. The flat roads and generally favorable winds have allowed for fairly leisurely, non-strenuous cycling. Its the heat, not the pedaling, that saps our energy. Its early to bed tonight and early to rise, as we have nearly 80 miles of biking to the next significant town. At least we know we can camp if we're caught by dark. It comes fast and suddenly at six pm. My water purifier will keep us supplied with plenty of water if need be.

Later, George

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Sukhothai, Thailand

Click here for a larger version of the picture

Friends: We are now five days and some 300 miles in to our travels. We have left the crushed ice belt of Thailand and are now in the cubed ice region. We come upon crushed ice occasionally, but cubed, cylindrical ice with a hole in the middle, predominates. We somewhat prefer the crushed, but we aren't complaining. Not every little oasis of a restaurant we come upon has ice, but most do. As we approach the small open air restaurants we generally eat at, our eyes search for a giant cooler, as that is where the ice is usually kept if there is any. If we don't see one, we continue down the road for another place to eat.

Cold, cold drinks are among the highlights of our day. The ice doesn't last long, so we have on occasion bought a kilo bag and continually feed the cubes into our water bottles to keep whatever fluid we are drinking soothingly chilled as we imbibe in the shade. And the shade ain't too cool, even in the evening. The days start out hot and stay hot. We are soaked in sweat even before we start riding after carrying all our gear down from our usual second floor hotel room and loading it on our bikes. Although we have a tent we have yet to use it. Hotels are cheap and the camping not so appealing in the heat. Only once have we been on the first floor. It is a relief to start riding and creating a current of air to cool us off. We are hoping for cooler days ahead as we continue north and climb into the highlands.

The sweltering heat is somewhat of an appetite suppressant. We'd rather drink than eat. I'm not getting enough calories and have been perpetually hungry, though I have begun taking extreme measures to fuel up. Today I bought a whole chicken roasting at a stand along the road. It's all mine, as Laurie tries to be vegetarian. I've also added yogurt drinks to my diet. The usual Thai meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner, is a glob of rice with a spoonful of some sauce. One usually has a choice of eight to ten sauces. I always ask for the "not spicy" ones. I'm lucky if there are more than two. Laurie the vegetarian is even less lucky. Frequently there is not a single meatless choice. That's good news for me, as Laurie picks out the hunks of meat or fish and plops them into my bowl. But not even Laurie's rejects are making much of a dent in my hunger.

The universal price for these dishes is twenty baht, slightly less than fifty cents After a couple of days I realized one was not enough of a meal for me, though it was enough for Laurie. But still I need a lot more than rice to keep me going and noodles are rarely to be found in the restaurants of the small towns we've been passing through. I have a fast running engine, and not much fatty reserve. Laurie's reserves are minuscule, but she has a different metabolism and has had no hunger pangs, though she did bonk one evening. It wasn't a serious bonk, as we were within a couple miles of our destination and the terrain was flat and we had a gentle tailwind.

My hunger hasn't been much of a factor yet, as the terrain hasn't been demanding, just the heat. We have yet to encounter a serious climb. In fact, just one lone burp of a hill. And as we climbed that hill a driver slowed alongside us and handed me a liter bottle of purified water. It was just one of countless acts of small kindnesses that have been heaped on us here. No place, other than Colombia, have the people responded so favorably to me on my bicycle. A couple of motorcyclists passed us and stopped and handed us a can of coconut nectar later that same day. I've been handed food and drink from passing motorists elsewhere, but not twice in the same day. Four teens on two motorcycles after passing us, pulled over and flagged us down and asked to take our picture. They took turns, so they could all be included in at least one photo.

Several times, as we have puzzled over our map along the road, someone has stopped to ask,"Where are you going?" Their limited English doesn't include the phrase, "Can I help you," though that's what they mean. Rarely in my travels has anyone stopped to assist me as I'm poring over a map, no matter how perplexed I try to look. Frequently I eventually have to seek help. Here it comes to us. Two women on a motor scooter led us to a hotel from the outskirts of one town we were entering. The town was too inconsequential to be included in our Lonely Planet guidebook. We had no clue where we might find a hotel until these women came to our rescue. It's not always easy to spot a hotel, as most signs are in Thai script, still unintelligible to us. We would have been lucky to identify a hotel, even if it were staring us in the face.

People along the road and in the fields and rice paddies continually wave with gleeful delight as we bike by. Their response enlivens the fairly mundane scenery. Much of our route has been through standing water, as the monsoon season has just ended. Trees and vegetation rise above the water. People stand waist deep in the water fishing or harvesting. We have been lucky not to have been rained upon. We did experience one huge drenching for an hour in Bangkok the day before we left. If we had been riding in such a deluge, we could have been swept away. Our second day out of Bangkok we came upon a road that was flooded and closed. We were forced to return to the nearby four-lane divided super highway with a nice wide shoulder. It made for easy pedaling, but the constant roar of near bumper-to-bumper traffic flying past at sixty mph is not the cycling we prefer. Unfortunately, much of our route so far has been on such roads. Even former minor highways have been widened to four lanes.

The highway lobby here must have extreme clout. The road in to Phitsnulok last night, a town of 200,000, widened to ten lanes wide. Alongside was a secondary four-lane highway. That was an obscene fourteen lanes of asphalt and with hardly the traffic to justify it. Good thing I wasn't traveling with Jim Redd. He would have been in convulsions. We have had occasional sips of idyllic two-lane rural roads with minimal traffic when we've left the main roads to explore some of the ruins along the way, but unfortunately, such roads do not connect the towns in this low-lying portion of Thailand that spends part of the year under water. At least the shoulders are plenty wide and we can ride side by side, though we have to speak loudly over the roaring traffic to maintain a conversation.

We're headed to remote regions and peace and tranquility, so these less than idyllic conditions don't have our spirits flagging. We are still imbued with the initial joy of being off on our bikes, embarking on an adventure of weeks and weeks. Before we left, Laurie said that one of the things she wanted to do on this trip, the one thing she had to do, was to ride an elephant. It would be akin to the camel ride she took in Algeria. So when she saw the offer of elephant rides our first day out of Bangkok through the ruins of Ayuthaya she seized upon the opportunity rather than waiting for a more exotic ride further north in more rustic terrain. We mounted the elephant from a stand. A guide in a colorful costume sat at our feet just behind the elephant's head. We swayed back and forth too dramatically for any picture-taking. We were part of a parade of others on elephants. Even though it was a tourist cliche, it was exhilarating to be promenading past Buddhist Temples over 700 years old on the back of an elephant. Whether we do it again or not remains to be seen, though we know there will be more opportunities.

We are three days from Chang Mai in higher terrain. We are looking forward to staying with the friend I have worked with at the Telluride Film Festival the past ten years. She took up residence in Chang Mai seven years ago after retiring from the postal service. We have a ton of questions for her about things Thai.

Later, George

Friday, October 18, 2002

Ayuthaya, Thailand

Friends: Thailand is widely known as "The Land of Smiles," and for good reason. The Thais are remarkably cordial and congenial, and, if not smiling at the moment, can quickly do so with a spontaneous ease. The smile is the predominant expression, even on the faces of the con artists. It took better than an hour before Laurie and I realized that the seemingly good-hearted fellows who had befriended us as we were out strolling on our first day in Bangkok, had actually ensnared us into a fairly elaborate scheme to get us to spend a few thousands dollars on some rubies and sapphires.

It all began when we accepted the offer of a free ride from a tut-tut driver to take us to some monasteries as long as we agreed to visit his friend's gem shop. Immediately upon our arrival the night before we had been struck by all the genuine warmth and goodwill and smiling faces. We thought this was another example of the great friendliness of the Thais. When we finally realized what was going on, we had been so won over by the schemers' initial niceness, Laurie even wanted to tip the tut-tut driver involved.

Thailand could well assume a second affectionate nickname for us--"The Land of Ice." We have been thrilled that every cafe we have stopped at in our first day of biking north out of Bangkok has offered us as much ice as we'd like with our drinks. It hasn't mattered whether its been a makeshift roadside cafe or an established restaurant, or whether our drink has been a soda or juice or water, the drink has come brimming with ice, an extreme rarity in a third-world country and a great, almost unimaginable luxury for a touring cyclist in the tropics. Knowing that we can soon be refreshed by an ice cold drink has made the sweltering heat and humidity much more tolerable. In Mexico I used to crave Popsicles as I was wilting in the heat. Rare was it though that I'd be lucky enough to come upon a cart along the road or in the small town as I was biking along. So for ice to be so prevalent here is almost too-good-to-be-true.

Its nice to finally be about our business of what we came over here for--a two-and-a-half month, 3,000 mile circuit of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia on our bikes  after a couple of semi-trying days of playing the tourists in Bangkok. This is the second bicycle tour that Laurie and I have undertaken together. Several years ago we shared a mini-two week tour in Mexico. We flew into Mexico City, loaded up our bikes at the airport and headed south through the heart of the country to Oaxaca then continued west to the Pacific and Puerto Escondido.

The non-stop mountains made it an extremely challenging introduction to touring for Laurie, but she gallantly persevered and proved to be a most amenable traveling companion. She likes to camp as much as I do and to keep expenses to a minimum and thrives on the travel experience. When she told me she was ready to quit her job and go off on a long tour, I was happy to accompany her wherever she cared to go. She has long wanted to visit the ruins of Angor Watt in Cambodia. As we studied a map of Southeast Asia, a 3,000 mile loop jumped out at us, starting in Bangkok, biking 650 miles north, crossing the Mekong River into Laos, then over to Hanoi , and then down Vietnam's coastal Highway One to Saigon, and over to Cambodia and Angor Watt and back to Bangkok. An added bonus would be visiting a long-time friend of mine who lives eleven months of the year in Chang Mai, 500 miles north of Bangkok.

The heat and humidity have had us drenched in sweat since the moment we flew in to Bangkok three days ago shortly before midnight. We had spent all day in transit. It began with a 13-hour flight from Chicago to Tokyo and ended with six more hours in the air from Tokyo to Bangkok after a two-hour layover. We weren't disappointed in the least that we ended up in an air-conditioned hotel room, though we would have been perfectly content with a room with an overhead fan.

After two days of sight-seeing and de-jet-lagging in Bangkok, we arose at six a.m. this morning, hoping to avoid the worst of Bangkok's infamous nightmarish traffic, as we set out to make our escape from this sprawling city. But even at 6:30, the traffic was virtually bumper-to-bumper and spewing enough fumes that quite a few people were wearing masks. I was ready to myself as my lungs were smarting. Traffic is at virtual gridlock at all hours, even at midnight when we were driven the fifteen miles in from the airport. It had us more than a bit leery of daring it on our bikes. But the Thai cordiality extends to their behavior behind the wheel. Though it was extremely rare to see a cyclist in Bangkok, the drivers all let us have some space and didn't make us feel particularly threatened, though any casual observer would have been convinced we were in great peril and insane to be riding in such traffic.

It certainly seemed crazy to be biking out of the city on the same ten-lane wide superhighway we had driven in on from the airport, but we didn't see much of an alternative. With all the rivers winding through Bangkok bringing many roads to an abrupt dead end, there wasn't any evident direct route out of town other than this road. A bike-related website didn't overly discourage us from the road, though it did suggest that some might prefer taking a bus or train to the outskirts of the city. We didn't even consider it, even though we were still adjusting to riding on the left-hand side of the road, British-style.

The five northbound lanes of traffic were divided into two sections--three-lanes towards the right for faster moving traffic and two lanes to the outside for slower and exiting traffic. Each section had a shoulder. Laurie and I alternated from being on the shoulder of the inner three lanes and the shoulder of the fifth outer lane. Each was their own nightmare. The outer, fifth lane had stretches of metal grates that extended halfway out in to the lane that were wide enough to swallow our bike tires and the torrential rains. They forced us to swing out in to the middle of the lane, but not once did a vehicle honk or even cut us close. It was still frightening to be so far out into the speeding traffic.

We frequently had to fight our way through a couple of lanes of merging and unmerging traffic liberally sprinkled with darting scooters and motorcycles, all speeding at fifty mph or more. It would have been easy for anyone to be paralyzed by fear caught in the mayhem of it, but my years of messengering and Laurie's daring spirit, along with the experience of a several incursions on Chicago's expressways (the Ike and the Kennedy and Lake Shore Drive) on various Critical Mass rides, gave us the fortitude to flow with the traffic. Laurie commented it wasn't the most pleasant cycling, but she said it with a smile, as she, like me, is always so infected by the joy of being on the bike we could suppress the fear and fury any normal savage would have been feeling, and also the urge to curse all and sundry for being caught in this insane mess.

We took our first break after fifteen miles for breakfast at a roadside stand serving some sort of rice dish. We noticed someone with an ice drink. It was coffee, something Laurie likes to start her day with. It was made with a scoop of crushed ice. When I saw that ice I asked for a cup myself and settled on a bottle of sprite, as soft drinks were the only alternative to coffee. We hadn't escaped Bangkok's urban sprawl, but we were as exultant as if we had already made it to Chang Mai. We were certain we had survived the worst that we would encounter in the next two-and-a-half months, though miles of unpaved roads awaited us in distant and isolated precincts and land mines in Cambodia would make it dangerous to leave the road for a piss.

No food or drink ever tasted so good. The drink in particular since we were both totally unaccustomed to finding ice in third world countries except in areas where tourists frequent. It was highly doubtful that a farang had ever patronized this dilapidated shack of a cafe along the road. We were still exulting over our cold drinks when thirteen miles down the road we stopped at a service station and were treated to a couple more cupfuls of crushed ice with our drinks. Now we were spoiled. When we arrived at our destination for the day, Ayuthaya, a city thick with ruins nearly a thousand years old, even before we searched out a hotel we relaxed at a another ramshackle cafe with ice. We can only hope that the ice will persist and we can truly call Thailand "The Land of Ice."

Later, George