Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Chanthanburi, Thailand

Friends: I'd forgotten what an orgy of eating the night market of any decent-sized Thai town offers. Tonight I'm in a city of 100,000 or so near the ocean, but not on it, as I hoped. So instead of strolling the beach I can concentrate on a vaster than usual network of food carts that go on for blocks. The Chowhounds would be in ecstasy. There are all sorts of items on sticks--meats and fruits and vegetables, just about anything that can be poked. There are simmering pots of all sorts of stews and woks with stashes of innumerable ingredients. Some specialize in crepes. There are gelatins of all the Easter colors. Many people pull up to the carts on their motorbikes and take home dinner. The streets are thronged by a great conglomeration of people, school children on their own, young secretaries just getting off work, men in business suits, and everybody else. It all starts at dark when it is cool enough to walk about without baking.

I never have enough of an appetite to try as much as I'd like, so I always take home a bag or two for snacking and breakfast. Even after 101 miles today I only had enough appetite for three meals, at least so far. When I sign off I'll go back for more. This is the longest I've gone on any of my many many tours of better than 1,000 miles without a 100 mile day. Many tours through long desolate stretches, like the Australian Outback, or down the Pan-American Highway through South America, I do 100 miles day after day after day and am happy to be somewhere that offers no reason to stop so I can keep riding and riding. Being on the bike is where I most long to be and gives me the greatest happiness. That is my bliss

I began today intent on 100 miles, as my destination was 98 miles away. In my wanderings trying to find a hotel I got those extra miles and some. The Lonely Planet guidebook had no mention of this town, so I was on my own trying to find a hotel. I had arrived by four so dark was no threat. I was quite thirsty and famished. Its always tempting to just plop down, or collapse, at the first restaurant I come to and start refueling, but it's a higher priority to make sure I have a place for the night. Today, like usual, I picked up some street food, three hard-boiled eggs, to take to my room so I could start getting some food in to me before and after my shower.

I had a little more work than I anticipated reaching the 100 miles today, as there was some unexpected climbing along the way, nearly 2,000 feet worth, more than I've done cumulatively in the over 600 miles since I left Saigon twelve days ago. The one benefit was that at even the modest extra altitude the temperature was a few degrees cooler. I was also the beneficiary of several batches of cloud cover, making an even more marked difference in the heat. I was carrying a little extra weight, however, as I'm now back in a country that has coins, unlike Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. And the Thai coins are fairly hefty. I've startled myself a few times these past couple of days by a clatter in my pocket, forgetting what it is.

One thing I do miss from Vietnam and Cambodia are the sugar cane drinks and coconuts along the road. There is no such thing here, just soft drinks and bottled water--badges of affluence evidently. I managed to cross Cambodia having only once to resort to a fizzy drink, a luke warm 7-Up, when I was truly desperate for a flavored drink in the shade along a rough stretch when I had vowed to stop at the next stand offering fluids no matter what. The closest thing to a coconut I had today was a watermelon. I was holding out for a papaya, but once again after a couple of hours in the beating sun there are times when one must stop.

Today is the first day in weeks and weeks that I had no bicyclists or motor-bikers pull up alongside me and begin with the interrogation--"what is your name," "where are you from," "where are you going", "how old are you," "are you married...?" There are no bicyclists to speak of in Thailand and there is enough fast moving traffic that it wouldn't be advisable for those on motorbikes to pull up alongside. There is usually enough of a shoulder though, that if they truly wanted to they could slow down alongside me for a chat, but the Thais are too respectful for such an intrusion. Nor do they pounce on me as I'm strolling and eating at the night market, even though I am most vulnerable and accessible.

I was surprised that even after Laurie decided to bike no further and I was single, that I was still asked the marriage question. For the 53 days that we were together that was as frequent a question as any. For a while we followed Lonely Planet's advice not to be an affront to the local's morality and say we were husband and wife. We even had fun concocting tales of our children and our marriage and honeymoon when pressed for details. We'd occasionally have to do some backtracking. Laurie once said we'd been married ten years but then said our children were 18 and 16. About halfway through Vietnam we grew tired of the routine and decided to say we were "just" friends, a qualifier I cringed at, as any woman does who has been referred to as "just a housewife".

People always looked a bit deflated to learn we weren't married, so I would immediately say, "Ho Chi Minh never married and he was a great man. I want to be like Ho." That would appease most people until we neared Saigon and people would dispute Ho's greatness. One shop-owner told me I looked like Ho with my long straggly bleached and whitening hair. White, or even gray, hair is an extreme rarity here. When the age question comes I sometimes turn the question on whoever has posed it to me and have been surprised at how men can seem a decade or two older than I would have ever guessed. I'd like to comment further on Ho but I'm beginning to feel a gnawing in my stomach and I can smell all those great aromas from the nearby night market. I read a biography of him as I biked Vietnam and there is much to be said of the man. I'll only mention that Ho Chi Minh wasn't his real name. He adopted it when he returned to Vietnam in the '40s after a 30-year exile. It means, "Bringer of lightness."

Later, George

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