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

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