Monday, April 15, 2013

Cycling Journal #1 - Bangkok to Chang Mai

April 7
We're ready to start, finally.  Our bikes are ready, our bellies are full, and the loose ends are tied-up enough to let them be.  We hop on our bikes and pedal away from the comfort of Pleasantville and into the unknown.  Yesterday was supposed to be the start of our 2-month bike odyssey through the wilds of Southeast Asia, but we didn't end up getting around to it. There was breakfast to eat, and then the internet to surf, and then a swim in the pool, and then lunch, and then we were tired so we took a nap, and then we had to start thinking about dinner... exhausting all around, so we were much too busy to start biking. In reality, after 4 days straight of running around Bangkok trying to get outfitted for bike touring, it was nice to have a day just to hang around the house and not have to go anywhere.

So instead we leave this morning. After a 1 km swim in Dan's school's new pool, that is. He and two teacher friends are training for a triathlon in a few months, so he invites us along to take a plunge in the yet-to-be-opened Olympic-size swimming pool. It sure seems far swimming from one end to the other, but I make it, 20 times in all. I spend the 20 lengths trying not to be lapped too many times by my wife, but enjoy it nonetheless (she only beats me by three lengths, or slightly less than 7 percent). "I wasn't really trying to push it," she tells me after I struggle out of the pool and we're discussing how it went. "It's okay that you're not that fast," she adds thoughtfully.

While Dan and his training partners hit their bikes to blast out a long ride to the west, we tackle the Sunday morning suburban Bangkok traffic and slowly head north, to Ayutthaya. Google Maps promises it's only 58 km away, but after some differences of opinion with the computer's suggested route, a few wrong turns, and some cruising around to find a place to stay, we end up making it an 80 km bike ride.

Ayutthaya is the city of temples, an ancient Thai capital that's been reclaimed from centuries of neglect and sacking. It's also the city of stray dogs. And heat. Everywhere we wander, dozens of stray dogs are splayed out motionless on any scrap of ground that might offer the least bit of respite from the oppressive heat. Judging by their complete lack of motion, chests barely moving, they aren't achieving much success. In Nepal, Andy commented on the street dogs' inactivity during the day. There was lots of sleeping going on, but we chalked it up to their incessant nocturnal prowling and barking. Those dogs looked sad. These dogs look pathetic. Their misery is tangible as they slowly melt into limpid pools of canine ambivalence.

Our misery depends on who you ask. I think it's hot, but nice. I grew up in a place where it got obnoxiously hot for at least a couple of weeks each summer, and learned how to deal with it. Abby grew up Alaska, where it usually snows every month of the year. She thinks it's sweltering, and that her brain is frying inside her skull. I think she's exaggerating, but when I tell her that it doesn't help (?). I buy her ice cream, instead, and that seems to work much better than logic (?). I briefly consider buying ice cream for some of the dogs, but end up just giving the one nearest to me the dregs of my ice once all my coke is gone. He likes it, I think - I can't really read him through his impressive ambivalence mask.

We decide to go with budget accommodation and pick the cheap room with just a fan. It's ridiculously hot when we first walk into our room, but spread-eagled naked on top of the sheets with the fan on high, it's not so bad. For the first day of our adventure, through the middle of the day when the heat is at it's worst, we both agree that we did very well. Spirits are high. The heat has not evaporated our excitement. I think this is going to work. Sleep comes easily.

April 8
We wake up before the sun in order to go explore some of the temples around town with some pretty morning light. I neglected to bring my camera on our evening tour yesterday, on purpose, but then regretted it when the sun got all colourful and started dazzling us when it hit the ruins just perfectly. I'm determined to catch it on the flip side, but of course there are clouds on the horizon this morning so we have to enjoy the ruins on our own, without the advantage of seeing them through an eyepiece. On our way back, we hit the market for some mandatory fruit, then the 7/11 for some yogourt, and have a nice breakfast in our guesthouse courtyard. The number of 7/11s in this country is simply astonishing - one on every corner, it seems. And I'm really not exaggerating. It's worse than Tim Horton's in Barrie, or Starbucks in Seattle, or coffee huts in Anchorage. In fact, it's likely worse than those three things all multiplied together, based on my back-of-the-napkin math:


Regardless, whoever decided to introduce the chain to this country had better have himself (herself?) a nice little compensation cheque for that idea.

We decide to skip biking the 300 km between Ayutthaya and Sukothai in favour of the train. It's flat, and straight, and apparently boring, while trains are flat, and straight, and apparently exciting. Our main motivation, however, is a desire to be in Chang Mai for Songkram, the Thai water festival. It starts this coming weekend leaving us 5 days to cover 900 kms. that's considerably more aggressive than we want so we're going to have to cheat somewhere and this seems like the best spot to do that. Plus, we both really like train rides, and it's easy to bring your bikes along.

Sadly, when we get to the train depot we learn that all the trains are full for the next 2 days, so we spend the next 2 hours trying to find the northern bus terminal (there are different terminals for different destinations). We're looking for an actual building, which explains why we cycle past it several times before realizing that it's simply a covered shelter with a counter at the back that looks like any one of the dozens of roadside restaurants dotting the landscape. The building just down the street that looks exactly like a bus terminal turns out to be a giant covered market.

I come up with an explanation for this apparent mix-up, how they anticipated the demand for buses to the north to be much greater than it turned out to be, so they couldn't afford to pay the mortgage, sold the building for a song to a group of local street vendors, and moved down the street to an open space between adjacent 7/11s. I try to share this theory with the bus ticket vendor, but he ignores my gibberish and instead just points at our bikes and yells, "Fold! Fold!" We buy our tickets, and ignore the dirty look from the bus driver when he discovers he has to figure out how to pack two bikes into the luggage storage. "Fold? Fold?", he asks. We shake our heads no. We take the front tires off, he grimaces, and an entire empty luggage compartment is found which makes the entire issue of folding bikes entirely irrelevant. Now I'm curious, are folding bikes really that common in Thailand?

We enjoy the air-conditioned bus ride presumably less than an air-conditioned train ride, but it's quite pleasant, and non-sweaty, and we arrive at our destination in time for some night market snacks and a trip to the nearest 7/11 for a cold beverage. Luckily, there are two in the immediate vicinity - one adjacent to the hotel (they share a wall) and another directly across the street. We visit both to share the love, then fall asleep to some incomprehensible Thai tv. Sleep comes easily.

April 9
Our plan is to visit the ruins at Sukothai today, 57 km away. We spent the night in Phitsanulok, a major train and bus town, so start the day cycling west, away from the sun along the side of a very nice highway. It’s essentially dead flat, and dead straight. We do have one moment of drama where the road makes a 5 degree bend to the left, which is exciting in that we didn't know what would be around the corner until we actually made it around the corner. We could have made a really, really educated guess, based on the previous 50 kms, but we didn’t know. Turns out, it's more of the same, but the anticipation is good for a few minutes, anyway. The 57 kms turn out to be just as advertised - my bike computer and Google are in complete agreement.

Sukothai is fabulous - way better than anticipated, in fact. We read that it was "a miniature version of Angkor Wat", which didn't mean much since we haven't been there yet, but it sounds impressive, so we're excited to begin with. We arrive and wear big smiles all day as we cruise around the expansive site on our bikes. Abby likes the temple with all the elephants emerging from it, while I like the one with the big Buddha trapped behind a wall. For some reason it reminds me of the setting for the final scene in Return of the Jedi, where everyone gets their medals. Until I watch the scene again, and decide it's not really like that at all. Although it is big, and old, and ruined, and kind if like Tikal (the ruins in the jungle that are shown at the start of the scene) if you squint and added Buddhas to all the temples. I want to take some really awesome photos of it which I would post here, except my camera is broken when I pull it out of my bag, so I steal these ones from the internet:

The Elephant temple in Sukhothai Historical Park, Thailand. Stock Photo - 3048935
Elephants emerging from the temple.  How did they get them to stand so still while they turned them to stone and then built a temple around them?
ancient buddha image statue at  Wat Sri Chum  Sukhothai historical park Sukhothai province Thailand  Stock Photo - 15035329
Big Buddha hiding behind a wall, Wat Si Chum, Sukothai Historical Park.

After seeing all the ruins, we decide to take a tuk-tuk the 12 km back to town, because we’re both really tired. We're told to catch one on the main drag, across from the 7/11. I get a Big Gulp for the ride home - the original Road Pop. The tuk-tuk driver straps the bikes onto the side of his rig with a well-practiced ease, then puts on some sunglasses to make the drive into the darkening night. I'm confused until I swallow a fly between big gulps of my Coke. Smart man, our driver. He drops us off far enough away from our guesthouse that we are able to pedal into the yard as if we cycled the whole way home. It turns out that no one's watching, but I feel good about our accomplishment regardless. Sleep comes easily.

April 10
We’re eager to get an early start this morning, so are loaded up and in our saddles by 7:30 am. It’s delightfully cool as we pedal north along a secondary road that’s bordered by rice paddies, banana plantations, and corn fields. At times I almost feel like I’m riding through the back roads of Southern Ontario. At one point we pass through a long corridor of mango trees, the leaves spreading shade across the road from each side, forming a cool green tunnel. Their branches are fat with big clusters of fruit, which are sadly still green. Thais eat a lot of their mangoes that way, but we much prefer the sweet ripe ones, so I refrain from thieving.

Halfway to our destination, I look up and am baffled to see something on the horizon. It takes me a few minutes to realize that it's a hill - our first since leaving Kathmandu. It's a pretty big deal, and we high five on our bikes. It ends up being more of an awkward soft hand rub as we hit a big pothole at an in opportune time but no casualties occur, and the moment receives it's appropriate due.

The day passes quickly, and we make it to Uttaradit easily. We check into a hip local hotel where no one speaks English but they offer free breakfast and wifi. We work on our miming skills every time we need something from the front desk and by the end of the night we’re confident enough in our abilities that talk turns to going pro. The most challenging task proves to be getting plates so we can eat our take-out dinner we buy from the night market. It's fast become one of our favorite parts of each day, visiting the local open-air dinner market and sampling from the different stalls. It's cheap, and delicious, and it comes in plastic bags with no utensils, making consumption a real challenge.

I take a shower when we get up to our hotel room, and as I'm scrubbing the cakes of salt off my skin, I discover the start of a callous on each side of my ass, at the crease where it meets my thigh. It’s in the exact spot that grinds into the bike seat all day long. I was told that bike shorts would prevent this sort of thing, but then I realize that it might be worse without them. I decide I'd probably look like a baboon with a big round patch on each cheek. I tell Abby about my condition, and she says she has the same problem. She suggests asking the front desk for some lotion but I forego her advice and take some ibuprofen instead. Sleep comes easily.

April 11
It’s a long run of 140 kms to get to Lampang. We start early again, since it’s so nice to get a bunch of miles out of the way before the heat really kicks in. A website we found describes the ride as “flat, with three big hills”. The inherent contradiction of this description escapes me when I read it from the comfort of my bed, but as we wobble slowly up the second hill, somewhere around kilometer 5 of the 6 km ascent, it dawns on me that some part of that statement must be wrong. Since the hills continue to stretch on as far as the eye can see, I’m inclined to think that it was the “flat” description that the author sandbagged on, and resign myself to more agony down the road.

On the final hill, me and a transport truck take turns drafting off each other as we struggle painfully up the never-ending grade. It makes it go faster, having something to focus on, and the humour of the slow motion race appeals to me. When the climb finally eases, he changes gears and quickly leaves me behind, two quick toots of the horn the acknowledgement of our brief relationship. Abby later tells me that she got the same treatment when he passed her, and I curse him for being such a two-timing scoundrel. We reach the crest of the hill and take a well-deserved lunch break.

We’ve been drinking a lot of water to rehydrate, since sweat pours off our noses in sheets for most of the day. Yesterday, we calculated that we each drank more than 6 litres of water. To this I add my daily allotment of Coke, which has been averaging somewhere around 2 litres. I drink very little pop at home, but for some reason when I travel I turn into a soda-chugging machine. As I order another one at our lunch break, I think about a story our friend Troy once told me, about growing up in Arizona.

During the heat of summer, when the temperature would be hitting into the high 30s and low 40s, he would drink a lot of pop to keep cool. In fact, he used to go through two 2-liter bottles of Dr. Pepper every day, all summer long. He’d walk down to the local 7/11, buy one, and go home to drink it. When it was empty, he’d head back to the store for a second bottle, ensuring it stayed ice cold until he was ready to drink it. It seemed preposterous at the time (drinking that much pop, not making two trips - the two trips thing was brilliant), and I remember shaking my head in wonder and disbelief. Now, I find myself nodding in agreement and support as I relive the interaction in my head. I want two 2-liter bottles of Coke, except I’m pretty sure Abby would give me a long lecture about teeth brushing and diabetes, so I settle for four installments of 500 mils a pop. My hope is that it seems like less that way.

I down my Coke fast, and our supply of water we filtered in our room this morning runs out halfway through my spicy lunch so I start looking around for alternatives. Across the room, I catch sight of the big vat of ice water that all the locals are drinking from. My mouth is on fire, I can feel my capillaries collapsing from dehydration, and everyone around me is loudly slurping down water so cold the glasses turn instantly opaque with beautiful condensation the second the water hits them. After an affirmative nod from my noticeably wilted wife, I fill both our glasses and we greedily suck down our own liquid perfection. We’ve never tasted anything so good it’s like a unicorn dancing inside my mouth. The glasses are refilled numerous times, each one as good as the first. We are now officially on the local water train.

April 12
Abby has taken to collecting spare change from the side of the road, and today she really cleans up. After stopping suddenly along a mostly deserted stretch of highway, she leans over and fumbles in the dust for a brief moment before standing up triumphantly, a grimy coin held aloft. “That makes 11 baht I’ve found today,” she exclaims happily. 40 cents. She’s now made enough in found change to pay for half of my daily Coke habit. I take this to mean she’s had a turn of heart and is coming around to being supportive of my consumption.

The heat is destroying Abby today, and she’s struggling up all the hills. 30 km in, we ride by an elephant sanctuary and make the easy decision to investigate, mostly to get out of the sun for an hour. We’re in luck! The show starts at 10 am, and we arrive at 9:45. It turns out to be well worth the time, and we are treated to (pay for the privilege of seeing) a troupe of pachyderms making music, playing soccer, and painting self-portraits. It’s pretty amazing to watch them show off their arsenal of circus tricks, and we head back to our bikes chattering like little kids about all the things that elephants can do that we never even suspected.

We finally roll into Chiang Mai in late afternoon, where relief arrives in the form of Songkram, the Thai new year festival that’s celebrated by dumping buckets of water on everyone passing by. In a place where the new year coincides with the hottest part of the year, this tradition is wonderfully appropriate, and we’re dripping and delightfully cool by the time we reach our hotel (right next to a 7/11). Our shoes squeak loudly against the glistening tile floor of the lobby, but no one blinks at our sopping appearance. A pool slowly starts forming under me while we check-in, and a towel is handed wordlessly across the counter. The check-in process continues uninterrupted.

Our first week of bike touring is officially in the books: 550 km in 5 days. It’s now time for a few days rest. It’s Songkram, and we’re in Chiang Mai. Let’s get wet!

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