Friday, December 20, 2002

Chon Buri, Thailand

Friends: I'm at the doorstep of Bangkok, just 50 miles away, and the end of this journey. I could have scurried in this evening, but will instead leave at dawn tomorrow and make it a noon arrival on a Saturday afternoon. Maybe there will be a little less traffic on a Saturday afternoon than a Friday evening, though gridlock is gridlock.

The last three days and 165 miles from Chanthaburi I have been following the Gulf of Thailand. Its mostly been inland but the road has occasionally swung close enough to the coast for some seaside riding. I have passed a variety of resort towns and industrial parks with massive factories that help explain why this country is riddled by four-lane divided highways. Most of the resorts along the way cater to Thais and are virtually abandoned right now. Two nights ago I camped at a compound of bungalows along the beach and had the place to myself. Just a mile away was Ko Samet Island, a place popular with the backpacker set. For two hours before sunset as I sat on the beach, I watched a steady stream of boats three miles away at the end of the bay ferrying passengers out to the island. That made me very happy to be where I was.

I had contemplated giving the island a look myself, since it does have a semi-glamorous reputation, but I wasn't in the mood for listening to all the backpackers trying to one-up each other on the quality and extent of their travels, although they were all on the Lonely Planet circuit seeing the same waterfalls and caves and ruins and staying at the same recommended hotels and eating at the same recommended restaurants. They'd all want to think they'd endured the worst bus trip in all of Asia and suffered the worst taxi rip-off ever. Their travels comprised surviving the transit from one safe haven to another. For me it was the opposite. I thrived on the getting there and once I got there I was eager to get gone again. I was sorry my fellow two-wheeled carmudgeon, good ol' Jim Red, Critical Mass guru, wasn't alongside sipping a beer echoing these sentiments even more emphatically in his inimitable Faulknerian/Algrenian rhetoric. He would have had me laughing and exalting and wanting to be nowhere else than right there at that moment, though I was anyway.

I've had some nice leisurely riding these past three days, thanks in part that the roads of Cambodia weren't as horrendous as I feared, allowing me to make better time than I anticipated. I am well ahead of schedule and have no worries of arriving late for my flight. The worry-free cycling has liberated my thought from the concerns of the moment to be able to roam free. I am already reveling in the memories of this trip--the surprisingly warm reception we received in Vietnam and the lark of biking down Highway 1, meeting other cyclists and our grand time with Esther in Chang Mai, speed-boating down the Mekong River and conquering the roads of Cambodia.

For two months Cambodia's "Roads from Hell," loomed in the back of my mind. I wondered how bad they could be. I was psyching myself up in anticipation of them, as if I were an athlete before a championship event, feeling a certain amount of apprehension and anxiety. Its nice now to look back on the experience with some detachment. At the time I was so absorbed in the doing of it, I had no perspective on what I was actually doing. It was the same as I bicycled the length of South America. Only every couple of weeks when I happened to see a map of the continent could I feel a sense of awe of where I was and how far my bike had taken me. Its at once no big deal, but also a pretty god-damned big deal.

Cambodia was merely 400 miles compared to the 7,000 of South America from Medellin, Colombia down the Pacific coast to Tierra del Fuego and the Straits of Magellan, but those were 400 hard fought miles and in a most unlikely place to be biking. Cambodia wasn't what drew me here. It was just part of the circuit. But I know in the years to come the memory of those miles will be most vivid and warm and they'll have my head shaking in disbelief and quiet satisfaction. Cambodia wasn't the highlight of this 3,000 plus mile trip however. That could well be the 160 miles from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng in Laos through its stunning and otherworldly mountains and limestone formations with hardly any other traffic on a road we were told was too dangerous to bicycle. That was when we first experienced all the kids berserk with glee at our passing, showering us with a non-stop chorus of "Sabadees". Laos was the only country of these travels where the children said hello in their native tongue. Everywhere else they were delighted with the chance to use some English. A "hello" was nice to hear, though I'd much prefer a greeting in the local language. I'd be very happy to revisit the mountains of northern Laos. I'd also like to give the highlands of Vietnam a ride as well, particularly north of Hanoi, but that is all based on word-of-mouth. Angkor Wat too will try to beckon me and will no doubt frequent my reveries on the bike in the years to come.

Encounters with fellow cyclists are always a highlight and there were more on this trip than practically all my trips put together, excluding New Zealand. In six months in South America I only met two lone cyclists, both Frenchmen, one in Costa Rica as I closed in on the continent and the other in Rio, as I awaited my flight home. I met none in two months in India, though a couple in Nepal. I met none in four months in Australia and none in a month-and-a-half in Morocco. I did meet four lone cyclists in Scandinavia--a German, a Dutchman, a Frenchman and an American. I have met a handful of stray cyclists on my many forays into Mexico, including one over 20 years ago who is among those reading this.

All those encounters have left strong impressions. The dozen or so on this trip are no exception. The two days we spent with the daft Aussie duo, who were on their first tour and who were mortified of mosquitoes and malaria and the sun, were among the best of this trip. And the evening we spent with the pair of Germans, who'd come 9,000 miles from their homeland and who were both cloaked in the calm and elevated consciousness of a monk, was equally noteworthy. The likelihood of meeting other such touring cyclists is as good as any reason to return here for more biking. There aren't many who do this. I am always happy to meet the few who do, especially in the act, when they are at peak euphoria.

I spent last night at Pattaya, Thailand's largest resort. It was quite a contrast to the night before, when I finally had the chance to sleep in my tent in Thailand. Pattaya grew to its present proportions thanks in part to GI's on R&R during the Vietnam conflict. The city was crawling with old, fat white guys with Viagra bulging in their pants, trudging about hand-in-hand with considerably younger, slighter, and decidedly more attractive Thai women, whose attractiveness only barely shone through their underlying anguish over their present predicament. It was hard to say who looked more miserable, they or their client.

There were plenty of Go-Go joints along the beach but it was all very tame. I wasn't propositioned once, evidently not old or fat enough to attract. It was an expensive town. The Internet cost $1.50 an hour, three times what I'm being charged now 35 miles up the road. Ice was seven bhat at the 7-Eleven compared to the usual six. I used the occasion to finish off the jar of peanut butter that has lasted me over two months. I kept saving it for an emergency. I likewise have several of the two dozen energy bars I brought left. Food wasn't as hard to come by in the sticks of Cambodia and Laos as I feared.

I'm looking forward to my run-in to Bangkok tomorrow, but not the two days I'll have to linger before flying out. Hopefully my bike box is still at the hotel I left it at and I won't have to scramble to find a replacement. There are still sites to see there, though the biking will be a chore with all the traffic and pollution, nearly unparalleled. I hope to meet up with with one of the daft Aussies and who knows who else.

Later, George

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