Monday, December 16, 2002

Sa Kaew, Thailand

Friends: I don't know if its possible, but the Thais seem even friendlier than they were seven weeks ago when I left Thailand and crossed into Laos. From the woman who gave me my visa at the border to the food vendors along the road and everyone else I've encountered, I've been bathed in warmth and welcome. Its great to be back. I can understand all the more why Esther chose to settle in Thailand after traveling all over Asia. The landscape and the weather don't much appeal to me, but the civility of its people most certainly does. It is remarkably refreshing.

Once again my morning started out with over twenty miles of paved, or what passes for paved, road in Cambodia. For an hour the cycling was fairly tolerable, but then as I approached the final town in Cambodia several miles before the border, it turned into a severe washboard, almost as if it were a hardened lava flow. It wasn't anything anybody would want to drive or bike or walk upon, and no one was who could help it. All traffic stuck to a dirt corridor to one side of the road, unless forced on to the corrugated pavement. It was the roughest going yet. It extended three or four miles beyond that last town, all the way to the border. Through the town there was one worn strip of pavement a couple feet wide that was relatively smooth right in the middle of the road. I battled motor bikes coming from both directions for that premier strip. Jagged fist-sized rocks protruded from the worn pavement. Some looked as if they could be coral sharp. I didn't dare go faster than three miles per hour, about the slowest possible without toppling. But I knew Thailand, the promised land of smooth roads, was imminent, so I just bore with it.

The Cambodian customs came after thirty miles. I arrived at nine a.m. I had been warned of thieves but I was able to keep my eye on my bike as my passport was processed without any attempt of extortion. The only occasion of that on this trip was our entry in to Vietnam. I had ridden to the border without stopping to eat, so once I crossed in to Thailand I stopped along the road under some shade and ate the spring rolls I had purchased in the market last night. As I ate, a pick-up truck overloaded with pineapples lost about half its load right in front of me. I thought, "A godsend. What a nice welcome back to Thailand," but the driver came back to reclaim his loss. People out of nowhere stopped and helped and there was no one with sticky fingers among them.

When I resumed riding, I felt as if I were floating on air, the road was so smooth. It felt as if my bike had just gotten an overhaul from Joe of Quick Release, as good a mechanic as there is. The Thais love to build roads so much and are so good at it, I couldn't understand why they hadn't offered to lay at least 100 miles of pavement for the Cambodians from the border to Seam Reap. It would serve their interests as well, as it would then be an easy half day bus trip from Bangkok to those famed ruins of Angkor Wat, bringing all sorts of extra tourists to Thailand. Now no one with any sanity would attempt such a crossing. It would also aid in getting goods into Cambodia and maybe drop the price of a can of coke in Seam Reap.

Within five miles I saw my first red and green 7/11 sign with 24 hours along side it. Two doors down was an Internet cafe. I wasn't overheated yet, but I had to have a Big Gulp crammed with as much ice as I wanted, something I'd been dreaming of for weeks, ever since I had left Thailand nearly two months ago. And while sipping it, I could make a quick email check. It doesn't get too much better than that. Even if 7/11 hadn't sponsored the first American team to participate in the Tour de France over a decade ago, I'd be a loyal devotee after all the pleasure it has given me on this trip.

While at the computer, a couple of guys, including the Internet operator, respectfully admired my dust-saturated bike. When I exited, one pointed out my front tire had ruptured and there was a slight bulge in my rear tire. I had been aware of the rear tire but hadn't replaced it with my lone spare, saving it for a greater calamity, which I now had on my front. I was lucky it hadn't blown out on me. It needed immediate replacing. This was the Vietnamese tire I had purchased for $1.50 after my day of four flats just before My Lai. It lasted a little over a thousand miles, much of it on quite horrendous roads. The guys watching me replace the tire were pleased to point out the spare I had purchased in Saigon said "Made in Thailand" on it.

The slight bulge in my rear wheel didn't even cause a bump as I rode, so I wasn't pressed to go out of my way to buy a spare. But less than ten miles down the road, I came upon a bike shop and it had a few 27 x 1 1/4" tires, which aren't all that common here. I was also able to buy three of the orange-tinted patches I prefer for eleven cents. I would have stocked up for the next decade at that price, but that was all they had left.

Another of Thailand's great luxuries are the abundance of service stations with all amenities including showers. I was mighty tempted to stop at the first one I came to and to rid myself of my last coating of Cambodian dust. I expected, however, to call it a day by mid-afternoon, so just used the service station to wash off the worst of the dust from all my gear. It was well-saturated, though my much-adored Ortlieb panniers kept the dust from penetrating even better than it kept out the rain. It will take more than a couple of downpours to wash all the dust out of my bike's many crevices. I no doubt will be transporting more than a few grams of Cambodian dust back to Chicago.

I am now little more than 100 miles from Bangkok. I could be there tomorrow, but six days in the big city before my flight home is the last thing I want. If I could be on a plane back the day after my arrival I would be damn tempted to get on it, as that week of messengering before Christmas is always the most fun and lucrative of the year. The city is all dressed up, the work force is in a festive mood, and I can ride my heart out. I am sorry to be missing it. I could earn enough in that week to pay for these two-and-a-half months of travel. But rather than attempting an early flight home, I will bike 100 miles south from here to the ocean and then follow the Gulf back to Bangkok stopping at which ever of the beaches I can't resist and polish off the two books I have left to read. I'll get to Bangkok by Saturday or Sunday before my Tuesday flight.

Later, George

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