Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Sukhothai, Thailand

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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

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