Friday, November 1, 2002

Chiang Kong, Thailand

Friends: Greetings from the banks of the Mekong River in the northeast corner of Thailand. We are on the fringe of the Golden Triangle, where much of the world's opium is grown. We've seen no evidence of the crop other than some striking palatial estates off in the rice paddies that have filled the valleys between the mountain ranges beyond Chang Mai. We have now come 700 miles from Bangkok. Tomorrow we will take a ferry to Laos and then embark on a six-hour speed boat trip to Luang Prabang.

The cycling has been most tranquil the past two days past lush green vegetation on two-lane roads with minimal traffic. Yesterday began with a sixteen mile gradual climb. After the descent it was flat most of the rest of the day. Today was relatively flat as well, though low mountain ridges framed our route to the east and west as we headed north. Looking at the map of Thailand back in the States, I somewhat expected this region to be relatively unsettled. But there have been plenty of small towns unmarked on the map, and between the towns, few stretches without residences just off the road. There has been no shortage of food or drink, though we went until mid-afternoon today before enjoying some ice.

We were fortunate the past two nights to find a hotel in the two towns we arrived at, both times with less than half an hour's light before dark. Each town had only one hotel. We had to backtrack a mile to one of them. They were the two worst hotels of the trip, one with nothing more than a bed, and neither with a sink or mirror, but we were relieved both nights not to have to camp. They were dumpy single story hotels, so at least we didn't have to worry about lugging our gear and then our bikes up any stairs, as all too often has been our experience. We've had to climb as many as four flights, almost the toughest part of the day. Only one other time have we had such first floor luxury, and that was at a hotel that provided condoms and private parking so passersby couldn't see who was frequenting it.

These past two hotels both charged 200 baht, an appalling figure for such accommodations, and twice what we're paying tonight, but still less than five dollars. We know if we can't find a hotel, we can always pitch our tent on the grounds of the local Buddhist temple. They never turn away any one in need. We would like to experience the novelty of that, though being woken up well before dawn when the monks arise for their prayers and absolutions diminishes their appeal. Though we are both ardent campers, and camped most of our time in Mexico, camping here, encrusted with multiple layers of sweat and grime, has very little appeal. We're told it will be cool in northern Laos and Vietnam, so we're hoping we may get a chance to use our tent and sleeping bags yet.

Laurie, the CPA, gave in to her compulsion to occupy her mind with numbers today, counting everyone who greeted us along the road. The people have been phenomenally friendly. Nearly everyone we pass responds to us with a greeting of some sort, so for the hell of it, Laurie wanted to put a number on it. By lunch, after thirty-six miles, fifty-one people had waved or tooted their horn or said hello to us. As she neared one hundred greetings, we considered rewarding that person with one of the Chicago post cards Laurie brought along to give to anyone who did us a kind deed. We thought of making a grand ceremony of it, Laurie presenting the postcard and I photographing it, but it went no further than the planning stages. We ended the day with 151 greetings in eighty-three miles, well over one per kilometer, more than one every three minutes. And it was an average day.

We're half-way into our third week on the road and we have yet to run out of things to talk about. We're able to ride side by side for hours and chat without riling a horn blast from traffic, even though one of us is generally encroaching upon the road. We're both rummaging through and sharing memories long forgotten in our hours of pleasant cycling. Today Laurie was telling me about horseback riding in the small Nebraska town she grew up in. As an eleven-year old, she'd use her allowance money to go to the local stable and hire a horse and go off riding on her own. She'd long hoped of getting her own horse for her birthday or Christmas, but it never happened, one of the first great disappointments of her life.

Two days ago, about ten miles out of Chang Mai, we encountered our first fellow touring cyclist of the trip--an Aussie paramedic who had also begun his travels in Bangkok. He was an ardent advocate of the helmet, having seen some brutal head injuries to bare-headed cyclists. We rode together for about five hours, some of it prolonged and strenuous climbing that had the three of us widely spread out. He was a big fellow, six foot three inches tall and weighing quite a few stones. He had to dismount and walk his bike at times on the climbs. But he made up for it on the flats, blasting along at better than twenty m.p.h. I kept up with him to keep the conversation going. Laurie was somewhat perturbed at being left behind, and accused us of being "boys."

This was the Aussie's first independent tour. He didn't know the etiquette of slowing his pace to accommodate the slowest member of the group in such situations. He was a gregarious fellow and was delighted to have others to talk to. We were the first cyclists he had encountered, other than a German couple who passed him going the opposite direction on his first day out of Bangkok. He was headed to Laos, but via a different crossing than ours, otherwise we would have been very pleased to continue on together. We still hope to meet up down the road with the assistance of the Internet.

Today we had an acrobatic snake slither across the road between the two of us. It startled me when it suddenly darted out from the grass along the road, passing right in front of me even though I was less than a bike-length behind Laurie. I didn't realize a snake could move so fast. I thought for sure I was going to run over him. It's no wonder that snakes have been far and away the most predominant road kill along the road, some as thick as a fist and as long as three feet.

The most common food since Chang Mai has been a noodle soup with four spongy balls of some sort of meat by-product. We thought at first the balls might have been some sort of mushroom, but, unfortunately for Laurie, we learned otherwise. That means I get eight per serving. The soup has been our meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner the past several days in the small, one-cafe towns we've been passing through. I had three bowls the other night, while Laurie only needed one. She has been supplementing her diet with peanut butter. The jar she brought from home was going fast, so peanut butter was my present to her for her birthday in Chang Mai. She just finished off her first bottle of 45-proof sun block this afternoon. Not a smidgen was wasted, as she cut open the bottle and scooped out every last drop. That we brought plenty of, so no worries of running out for awhile.

Later, George

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