Where Steve left you in his last blog we were in a place called Bang Saphan in the south of Thailand. There really wasn’t a lot more to the place than a palm-fringed beach, the warmest sea I have ever had the delight to swim in, some basic beach bungalows and a couple of beach-side cafes. What more could you ask for? We stayed a few days more than we had anticipated as the sleepy atmosphere played havoc with our get-up-and-go.
There were lots of European retiree expats in Bang Saphan and of course whilst I could quite understand the allure of spending your retirement in such a beautiful and peaceful place, I couldn’t help wonder what they must do with their days there. As much as I had enjoyed our relaxing time I wasn’t sure I could spend too much longer without getting bored and tetchy at the lack of things to do.
On our last night we met up for a drink with Niamh and Richie, our neighbours at the place we were staying, to send each other off on our merry ways. Before we had even reached the beach bar we heard an English guy who turned out to be the ‘musical entertainment’ firmly announcing over the microphone that he wasn’t going to play anymore of his middle-of-the road music if his two best friends didn’t stop fighting. Intrigued, we arrived at the bar to find a scene best summed up as an episode of ‘OAPs Behaving Badly’. Two bristly-chinned gents were forehead to forehead like goats, doing their best to face off as they swayed in their inebriated states. We later found out that the cause of their fisticuffs was a petty fight over where one had put his sign advertising the hire of his motorbike and it had been ‘brewing for months’. There was another elderly guy gyrating his hips as best he could against the rump of a much younger Thai lady who wore a grin-and-bear-it look. There was lots of drunken flirting between the other expats and we spent considerable time watching the best attempts of two sozzled guys trying to get their legs over their motorbike, staggering backwards numerous times with the effort, and dreaded to think of them hurtling around on it. I guess now I know what these retirees do to keep themselves entertained! I am not sure I have ever quite seen anything like this messy spectacle before and in such a tranquil and peaceful spot. I did dread to think what the dignified local Thai people must have made of it all. Needless to say, having seen another side of sleepy Bang Saphan, Steve and I were eager to set off the following day to pastures new.
At the moment we are in Chiang Khong in the north of Thailand and so our time in Thailand will be coming to an end tomorrow. We can literally see Laos just across the Mekong River. I have never been to Thailand before but I can certainly see what the fuss is about. There is so much to the country and as we’re usually cycling we haven’t been able to do half the things that you can do or see.
The scenery has changed the further north we have cycled from tropical beaches and limestone karsts to flat, lush green paddy fields then finally to mist shrouded and leg-defining hills.
At every bend we’ve been amazed and surprised by the things we’ve seen. One truck drove past us piled high with a fisherman’s catch of the day – fearsome looking sharks. I guess they are to be used for shark fin soup in the cities and whilst I don’t agree with it, it was quite an amazing and exotic sight to see.
Round one bend, coming down the hill towards us, I was excited to see a magnificently humble-looking elephant taking in the view around him as he stood in the back of the pick-up truck that was transporting him. In a place called Ayutthaya people were taking elephant rides around the town but I much preferred just watching them as they took their time ambling down the road. After experiencing how much stomping and stamping a group of the most petite Chinese girls could create at a teak wood guesthouse we stayed at, I was in awe at how such a giant of an animal could take such gentle, delicate steps. To top it all off one night we went to the night market for dinner and we passed a guy taking his baby elephant for a walk to see if there were any leftovers as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
Trucks have passed us piled high with coconuts. Also hanging off the back are the nonchalant looking guys who earn their living from climbing up and down the trees to retrieve them and who look ready for a well-earned beer; the pig-tailed macaques. All the monkeys we saw looked extremely taken care of with perfectly coiffed and crimped hair. It’s not easy becoming a coconut collector – they have to go to a monkey training college for this role.
In one village we saw two old guys meeting up to give their cockerels a bit of a fight. I can’t say I enjoyed watching it but no metal spurs were involved, the guys made sure the fight didn’t get out of hand and no blood was shed, only feathers. Another Thai past-time Steve and I had been intrigued about for a while was what was happening when a bunch of young, tough-looking Thai guys would stand around in a field looking at pretty little birds in cages propped up high on metal stakes. We thought maybe they were bird swaps but turns out that they are songbird competitions where highly territorial male songbirds use all their endurance to out-sing their competitors.
The animal I have been least keen on here is the dog. There are plenty of small, pampered toy dogs but plenty more brutes. I have never seen so many hard looking dogs with eyes missing or with scars where they have had big chunks bitten out of their sides by other dogs. I also find the sight of dogs with huge balls kicking around quite a disturbing image. I am not sure whether these dogs have owners but whether they do or don’t the Thai people seem to just let them get on with their own lives. During the day they don’t give us too much bother as they are so hot they can hardly raise an eyebrow as we cycle past. If they do run after us, it is more the thrill of the chase rather than an attempt to bite us. Come dusk though they take on a whole new persona. You can see them hooking up in a pack on the corner of roads like wayward teenagers set for an evening of terrorising the local neighbourhood. Apart from when we are looking for dinner, this doesn’t usually present a problem for us as we have stopped cycling well before dusk. One night though we had no option to keep on cycling after night had fallen as we couldn’t find anywhere to stay.
In every small village we asked they kept suggesting there were some bungalows just around the next corner but they never materialised. It was particularly annoying as that morning we had dilly-dallied over breakfast and then spent ages outside a Seven Eleven filling up on all sorts of snacks for lunch after agreeing to do a shorter day due the previous day’s long and hilly cycle.
Despite having been away for about 10 months now, the idea of cycling into the night and the possibility of not finding anywhere to stay still terrifies me (we’ve no longer got our tent to be as lightweight as possible and because now we can afford the luxury of staying in guesthouses…when we can find them). Steve’s reassurances that we have never not found anywhere to stay before and that if we keep on cycling we will find somewhere are of course true but as night descends I can’t think straight and start to panic. So at this point I really didn’t need the huge, snarling, barking pack of dogs that had started to chase us.
Following the dog bite incident in Australia I have been determined not to be afraid of dogs as I wasn’t before but by this point I was hysterical, screaming that I couldn’t cope with this. Poor Steve was pedalling harder but I was no help as I made the bike unstable by instinctively pulling a foot off the pedal at the thought of them sinking their teeth into my ankle. A Thai guy ran out of his hut and started chucking stones at them in order to stave them off. Thankfully we started to go downhill and they couldn’t keep up but it all gave me a bit of a fright. And still we had found nowhere to stay.
We cycled past a deserted beach and I resigned myself to the thought that we would probably have to spend it there but I wasn’t in the best frame of mind for such adventure. After cycling just short of 100kms on what was meant to be a short day, out of absolutely nowhere we found a resort of bungalows. My heart sank as Steve reported that they wanted 2,000 baht (our top limit is 500 baht) but that they would take 1,500. Steve went back and counter-bargained 700 and the boy shrugged his shoulders and said ok. Steve kicked himself that he should have gone lower but I was just happy to find somewhere to lay my head. However, staying in the most beautifully styled bungalow was a most welcome bonus and Steve had the good grace to save it for the next morning before he said he told me so! As for the dogs, I have taken to carrying a small collection of stones in my pocket – I’ve not had cause to use them yet and I am a pretty shoddy shot, but having them makes me feel more confident.
Talking about accommodation, it feels really rather decadent that we have been able to stay in a hotel, guesthouse or bungalow every night since we left Australia. In Thailand we have certainly stayed in a mixed bag but never usually paying more than £10 for the two of us is quite amazing.
Cycling into Bangkok wasn’t our favourite day as the heavens opened and we got splattered by road slurry every time a lorry drove past. However, the Thai people kept us going with waves and toots of encouragement and even the guys in one truck drove alongside us as we cycled handing us sweets to keep up our spirits.
Once in Bangkok though we loved blending into the background with all the other tourists as we secretly celebrated arriving at such a milestone. When we set off in New Zealand I never believed that I would get this far. We enjoyed our evenings so much that we didn’t want them to end which resulted in us rolling into our digs at 4am on at least two occasions.
As we’ve cycled through different villages, it has been interesting to see how each place specialises in different commodoties. We have been through places where there are stalls upon stalls of pineapples, another where the main trade is dumplings, yet another with brooms and wicker baskets, one where bamboo steamers of various sizes were filled with fish of comparative size, and another where ladies tending their smoking wood would sell the resulting bags of charcoal. We often wondered how you could decide between which of the tens of stalls you would pick when they all sold exactly the same thing.
It has been plain to see throughout Thailand that the three most important things to people are a respect for the family, religion and monarchy. In virtually every household and throughout towns and villages you will see portraits of the King and Queen and to speak ill of the monarchy is deeply offensive to Thai people, as well as against the law. Both in the morning and evening the national anthem is played on the TV, radio and public places such as parks and bus stations when everyone is expected to stop what they are doing and stand to attention.
The predominate religion in Thailand is Buddhism and even the smallest village will have an elaborate and beautifully decorated temple. Out of nowhere huge statues of Buddha will look over the lands and in the morning monks draped in saffron robes collect food alms from lay Buddhists. Alongside Buddhism, Thai people also hold ancient animist beliefs in which they worship spirits. We’ve seen this in the spirit houses that have been built at all homes and businesses as well as at places such as at the top of hills. These spirit houses are built to provide shelter for spirits of the land as a sign of respect. The spirits need to be cared for by giving shelter, food and gifts as they are believed to protect people and provide good luck and health.
We have learnt a lot from the way Thai people live and how they respect each other. Sa-nuk is the idea that everything should have the element of fun otherwise whatever the task will just become drudgery. So often we see Thai people working really hard such as those people working in the fields or the men and women doing the back-breaking work of building new roads in the intense sun but they are always laughing and joking. It is such a simple idea that to inject a bit of fun into whatever you are doing makes that task a lot less arduous and infinitely more enjoyable. I will be the first to admit that that idea sometimes passed me by back at home when taking everyday ‘stresses’ far too seriously.
Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate here between work and play or who is working or who is just hanging out. After a minor problem with the bike, we met the owner of a bike shop, Jin, who couldn’t fix the problem but knew just the person who could. He hopped on his bicycle, leaving his shop with his wife, and we followed down some back roads to the best bike mechanic in Lampang. We spent a good couple of hours hanging out with Jin, the bike mechanic and his wife, who we were excited to find also ride a tandem, and two of their friends. Everybody was involved with fixing the bike, holding parts, mopeding to other shops to buy parts, supplying drinks and food and providing general laughs and chat.
Not only is socialising so important but also having a passion for whatever it is you are doing. You could tell this bike mechanic loved having a problem to fix and did this job for pure joy rather than for any financial gain. We’ve seen this at even the most basic of food stalls where whole families take such pride in creating the most delicious dishes from simple ingredients and providing such welcoming hospitality.
Without a doubt, my favourite thing about Thailand is that it has lived up to its title of the Land of Smiles. Everywhere we have been, be it on or off the bike, we have received the most dazzling smiles that provide such an amazing morale boost. Thai people often smile when they are embarrassed and awkward and there are numerous occasions when we are travelling when I do the same and find it instantly relaxes me. Thai people smile too as they are culturally averse to displays of anger and violence and I have often wondered why some people can be so rude to other people when just a smile and pleasant explanation of the matter would more than suffice to sort out the situation. However, the only smiles that we have seen are the smiles of people who are genuinely happy, good-humoured and reveling in the joys of life. A genuine smile, put simply, is a basic gesture of respect for a fellow human being, the power of which cannot be underestimated. I have also begun to realise that I don’t think Steve and I could have gotten through some of the more challenging aspects of our trip if we hadn’t been able to cheer the other up with a smile and a joke.
So tomorrow we will chuck ourselves, our bike and gear into a longtail boat which will sail us across the Mekong River to Laos where we will continue pedaling and we are going to be smiling all the way.