Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Cycling journal #3 - Sihanoukville to Bangkok

May 26 - Sihanoukville
After six weeks of anticipation, our moment finally arrives and we pedal our bikes to the edge of the Gulf of Thailand. It’s the Cambodian beach, which is said to be half-rate compared to the Thai beach, but we love it. We take a day cruise to an adjacent island and jump from the upper deck into the warm, blue waters, we wander the gaudy tourist strip where we’re offered coupons for half-price buckets after midnight (as if we’ll be up past midnight), and we eat fresh grilled seafood with waves practically lapping our toes. We are happy; we are at the beach.

May 27 - Sihanoukville to Trat
Since we only have a week left to cover a lot of ground, we decide to stick with the beach theme and follow the coast as much as we can back to Bangkok. We start our southern swing, as we call it, by boarding a bus to the border. A short day on the bus will save us three days of biking, so we gladly fork over the money to get us a hundred kilometers into Thailand.

We’re both amazed at how much different the bus feels from our bikes, the difference of four wheels from two. From our air-conditioned perch high above the traffic and roadside scrub the views are broad and they whiz by at incredible speed. The experience is sterile and removed, and reminds me of window shopping. The shared intimacy between biker and countryside is completely absent. Thirty minutes into the trip rain starts to fall in thick, heavy sheets and we give ourselves a congratulatory high five. The biking looks miserable - maybe the lack of intimacy isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Getting our bikes onto the bus in Sihanoukville is a small battle, but an expected one that’s easily resolved with a short negotiation and a few thousand extra riel. For whatever reason, people in the transportation industry in this part of the world have a mental block concerning bicycles as cargo. You can show up with eight large duffel bags and no one blinks, but they see a bicycle and they start hyperventilating at the hassle.

Everything goes smoothly until we reach the border, when the fiasco begins. We have to change buses between Cambodia and Thailand on foot, clearing both immigration and the swarming touts that populate the no mans land between the two countries. We have onward tickets, but sorting out the correct agent from the scrum that engulfs us the second we step off the bus takes a little while, and when we do find him he’s not excited about the bikes. Despite the fact that we specifically asked the ticket seller back in town about bringing bikes along, the reality on the ground is not as advertised. “This isn’t Cambodia,” the transfer agent sneers, “you can’t just stuff things into the vans.” This Thai contempt towards Cambodia becomes a common theme upon our return to Thailand, but remains a mystery for the remainder of our stay.

We progress from nonchalant, to incredulous, to pleading, to irate, and finally to congenial as we try to convince him that our bikes are clean and compact. We’re being mostly honest but we know it shouldn’t be a big deal. Nothing works, not even money, and the agent becomes angry. We’re mostly confused by this point, since we’re the ones who should be upset, not him, but we try and start over. We’ve now attracted a sizable crowd and a particularly helpful German girl suggests we ride our bikes from the border, just cut our losses and move on. “Right, hadn’t thought of that one,” I tell her. I turn away before anything else comes out. I have to physically restrain Abby from lunging at the smiling twit.

The agent finally relents some by offering us a partial discount and some suggestions for our onward transit. We take the money and move on, settling for a mixture of pleasant biking, delicious smoothies, and a long ride in a shared pick-up taxi that gets us to our final destination for the same total cost, albeit with a bitter residue still tainting our mouths. That’s quickly rinsed away when we find a boutique hotel that has an action movie motif. We debate back and forth between Batman and Transformers but eschew the Dark Night for Autobots in a show of wheeled solidarity. We celebrate our success with a meal at the night market where a jittery Italian expat joins our table and proceeds to rail about the decline of Cambodia in a tweaker rage. It’s been an eventful return to Thailand.

May 28 - Trat to Laem Sing
I spend the night running back and forth to the toilet, purging myself of any scrap of food ingested in the past week and a half, it seems. Optimus Prime provides a calming, reassuring presence throughout the ordeal. I’ve been suffering from the cyclical runs, and by cyclical I don’t mean bicyclal, b/ut diarrhea that flares up every 2-3 days. Just when I start getting concerned, it stops of its own accord and things return to normal, only to storm back unexpectedly when I least expect it. It’s lead to some very close calls. It's become annoying enough that I finally cave and decide to follow my wife’s advice to seek medical attention before we leave town. “What, are you a nurse?”, I ask.

We follow the bright, shiny signs to the bright, shiny hospital, and are met at the door by a well-dressed greeter. It kind of feels like we’re rolling up to a 5-star hotel (or what I presume it would feel like to roll up to a 5-star hotel). We have our bikes valet-parked, and the lady greeter patiently guides us through the process of registering to see a doctor. She’s very pleased by our visit, and can't stop smiling.

After a short wait a nurse ushers us in to see the doctor, who listens knowingly as I describe my symptoms before asking if I’d like to be admitted. “Why, do you think I should be admitted?”, I ask nervously. I really don’t FEEL that sick, I think to myself. No, no, it’s not necessary, she assures me, but it’s an option if I want. My choice, she tells me. I contemplate the odds that the rooms here have cable television and what the food is like before politely declining. I bet the portion sizes are tiny.

Abby is rather uncertain how to go about being a patient’s chaperone. She’d much rather be the patient or the nurse, but not the awkward accessory. Every time a nurse comes to take me for a different test, she asks if I need company, gathers all of our stuff, and hurries to catch up, bags bundled awkwardly in her arms. The first time the nurse leads me all of twenty feet across the waiting room to a station on the side wall, to take my blood pressure and weight. It turns out this one could have been managed solo, but it’s funny since the communication with the nurses is very basic, so there’s no way of knowing what’s really going on until it happens. The nurse goes ahead and takes Abby's measurements, too, since she made the effort to come along. Her results earn an enthusiastic thumbs-up from MY (strike-out) our nurse.

I get some blood drawn and am given a vial for a stool sample. Abby declines to offer her company for this task, opting instead to enjoy the hospital’s complimentary coffee and to read up on medical tourism. I’m a little bit hurt. I make several visits to the bathroom over the course of an hour and a half, but on cue, the faucet has shut off. I can’t make a poo to save my life, and all I’m doing is making diamonds. By the time I concede defeat, Abby’s decided on either a pre-emptive mastectomy or a precautionary root canal. “Why not”, I say. They’re both apparently very cheap.

We’re happy to be back in Thailand, where services are generally better and standards are higher. The hospital is legitimately nice. We’re happy, that is, until we get the bill for the hospital visit. “We should have gone to a clinic in Cambodia,” I mutter to myself. “Either that or a 5-star hotel,” Abby chimes in from the peanut gallery, a satisfied I-told-you-so smile gracing her lips. Apparently I didn’t mutter quietly enough. I get a course of azithromycin, a printout of my blood work, and big smiles from everyone involved with my care for the cost of $160. It’s official, Thailand is not a third world country.

In the afternoon we turn off the main highway and make for the coast on a secondary road. It’s one of the nicest stretches we’ve cycled so far, a narrow, undulating track winding through orchards bursting with ripe fruit. Some of the fruit we recognize, some we don't. It’s clearly harvest season, since every time we stop at a roadside stand we leave stuffed to the gills with watermelon, or rambutan, or mangosteen, yet barely lighter in the wallet. The vendors must all be in cahoots to fatten up the farangs for some mystery foreigner sacrifice in the near future. We make a pact to not leave Thailand before we’ve sampled all the mystery fruit we’ve encountered so far.

We eventually arrive at the beach town of Laem Sing, which has a mediocre beach and a string of overpriced seafood restaurants, but we don’t care - we’re at the beach! We go for a swim, eat our fill of barbecued squid and watch the sunset from a deck chair overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. The squid is embraced internally, and there is no need for Autobots to stand guard as we sleep soundly through the night.

May 29 - Laem Sing to Chao Lao
Abby gets bit by a mosquito as she waits for me to finish packing up after breakfast. She spends the rest of the day worrying about dengue fever. “It had striped legs,” she explains patiently. “Those are the dengue ones.” She asks me if I know what to do if she comes down with the disease. “Yes,” I tell her confidently, “R.I.C.E.” She glares.

Yesterday it was barking dogs. For some reason she read a blog post about a biker in Turkey who got mangled by a pack of huge sheep dogs and needed ambulances and interpreters and surgeries and weeks and weeks of recovery time. I’m not that concerned about the yapping toy chihuahuas that “hound” our trip, but the look of terror in my wife’s eyes as she pedals furiously away from any and all stray dogs, her life dependent on it, is a regular source of entertainment for me.

Fifty kilometers from Laem Sing, a loud bang startles the quiet countryside and my rear tire starts hissing angrily. I have a blow out. We push our bikes to the nearest shade, and a lady comes out to meet us. She quickly gets impatient with my unsuccessful attempts at repair, and disappears down the road on her moto, my tire in hand. We sit in the cool shade, drinking the water she brought us until she returns, dejected. We’re on our own.

I manage to piece the tire back together using all of our remaining patches, but there an obvious bulge where the hole is, and the wheel wobbles noticeably with every revolution. The sound is obscured by other noises I go fast enough, so I bike faster in order to relax. Ten kilometers further on, the patch job fails, but this time we’re in a small beach town with a moto repair shop across the street on the corner. The beach is visible from the road, a long crescent with endless views. We look at each other and decide wordlessly to spend the night. This is exactly why we chose this route, and we spend the afternoon jumping happily into the meager surf. We venture out past the sand bar to find some bigger swells but are waved back in frantically by locals who mime rip tides at high tide, so we resort to drinking beer and watching the sun set through a golden haze. We drink to our fast-disappearing adventure.

May 30 - Chao Lao to Patthaya
My rear tire explodes with a bang and a slow fizzle twenty kilometers into our coastal ride. I take a look and it’s not pretty. There’s now an inch hole in the surface of the tread, and the ruptured, distended tube is oozing from the opening. There will be no repairs this time, I fear. The explosion happens as I’m following closely behind Abby, about to tell her that her tire is also flat. We take this as an omen that perhaps our biking days are behind us. “We’ve been Skookum’ed,” she exclaims with delight, and we laugh heartily for a short moment until we realize the full magnitude of what that might entail. Our laughter comes to an uncomfortable halt and we share a moment of silence for our departed friend.

Our discomfort disappears when we realize that we’ve broken down directly in front of a VW dealership (strike-through) a police station and that we no longer own a VW van. In front of the police station is a gaggle of laughing men, sitting in the shade of a large tree. They watch us curiously for close to a half hour as we try in vain to hitchhike, and then decide to see what the crazy farangs are doing.

The whole gang saunters over to us, and crowds around our broken bikes. Although they’re obviously associated with the police station, no one is actually dressed in a police uniform, and none of them really look like cops. In fact, one of them is shirtless, a short, tanned, muscled man whose entire upper body is covered in tattoos of fishing scenes surrounded by patterns that look like the desert night sky. The tattoos cover his entire torso and arms, and look incredible. Around his neck is an enormous canine tooth on a lanyard, which I’m sure he wrestled directly from a tiger’s mouth as it snapped and snarled at him in pain and frustration.

We show them our two flat tires, and they hold an impromptu meeting to discuss our options. We are not invited. I’m hovering around the edges, trying to explain that a motorcycle tire repair shop won’t do and that I need a completely new tire of an odd size which requires a well-stocked bicycle shop. I try to tell them that it complicated. For whatever reason, it’s just not getting through. They’re debating which tire repair shop is closest when I finally lose patience, grab my destroyed tire, and show them the gory injury. The conversation stops as the evidence sinks in, and then resumes again, louder this time, as they try to solve this new dilemma. The discussion continues for another minute and then a spokesperson is elected who walks over to us. I’m pretty sure he speaks only two words of English. “No English,” he says happily, by way of greeting.

The solution entails a ride for us and our bikes in the back of a pick-up to the nearest tire repair shop, which is actually some distance away. Conversation on the way is sparse, but the silence is easily filled with the sound of us noisily eating the bag of rambutans we are given as we climb into the truck. They are sweet and delicious, and it’s fun to throw the shells out of a moving police vehicle. It makes us feel powerful, flaunting rules this way, from a cop car, no less. As we’re drunk with our newfound power, we pass a big transport truck with three men literally sitting on top of the cab. One of them nonchalantly throws his styrofoam lunch box into the path of our oncoming truck and nothing happens. No one even flinches, the policemen keep driving. We’re crushed; our power is an illusion.

The man at the tire repair shop can't help us, and there’s no bicycle shop in town, so we ask to be dropped off at the bus station instead. We look at the map and realize our best bet is to go to a town big enough to have a western-style bike shop but still on our route. We've lost enough time by now that we’ll have to miss some riding, so we choose Pattaya.

Two hours later, the minibus pulls over on a busy street somewhere in the nondescript sprawl of uptown Pattaya, and the driver informs us it’s our stop. “Pattaya?”, we inquire, and he nods in agreement. That helps us a little, but only a very little - it’s a long sprawling city and we have no map. We follow up with the most pertinent question, “Beach?” He nods again, this time more eagerly, and then launches into an extended speech in Thai, gesturing enthusiastically the whole time before finishing with a big smile. We smile back vapidly, completely oblivious to whatever information he was trying to convey. It’s obvious that useful directions will not be forthcoming so we abort the mission by thanking him profusely and get off the bus, collecting our bikes from the back.

With a honk and a wave, the minibus disappears into the congested traffic, leaving us and our pile of gear on the crowded sidewalk to sort out where we are. I start reassembling my bike and loading it back up when a nervous knot appears in my stomach. I look around and confirm my suspicions. “Damn it,” I sigh. “Hey Abby, guess what?” She answers quickly, too quickly for my liking. “You forgot your passport?”, she says. “Ha-ha.” I’ve lost my passport on three different occasions in our ten years of traveling together, so it’s not a bad guess, although an annoying one. “No”, I reply, “my helmet.” She shakes her head sadly and then proceeds to rub it in. “I told you to check for everything. What's wrong with you?” I have no good answer, but before I can come up with a bad one, she beats me to it. A rueful smile touches her lips and she lets out a little giggle. “You know what I forgot? My water bottle. Damn.” I claim victory based on holding the moral high ground. Karma, you know?

We call the number on the bus ticket which puts us in touch with the lady who sold us our tickets who also happens to speak good English. She calls the driver and twenty minutes later my brain is safe again while Abby's thirst is quenched. We celebrate by ending the day on another beach.

May 31 - Pattaya to Bang Saen
It’s hot every day. It’s been hot every day for two months, but some days are hotter than others. Ayutthaya was a furnace, Luang Prabang was like a steam room, and Siem Rep was almost unbearable. It’s not as hot as it was, but it’s still hot. In northern Laos it was so hot that the sun melted the tar into thick puddles that stuck to our tires and made loud ripping noises as they left deep tracks proving our passage. It’s not that
hot, but it’s still hot.

We began our trip under the false pretense that we were tough. Two nights with a fan room quickly cured us of that misconception, however. Ever since, it’s been air-conditioning. Every now and then we forget our lesson and get a fan room again, and then toss and turn miserably through the endless, sticky night and wake up grumpy about the hot, sweaty, relentless ride ahead. That’s not tough, that’s stupid. Lately, we’ve been cranking the air-con so high (low?) that we sleep with blankets to stay warm. It’s delicious, the cold, but short-lived. Every morning when we open our door to leave, the heat and humidity are lying in wait to ambush us with a slap in the face, an actual physical assault that reminds us of where we are and prepares us for the day.

The beach makes the heat tolerable, which is why the past few days have been so exciting. The water is more of a tepid bath than a refreshing plunge, but it still offers a magical respite. Biking, it’s actually not that bad. You create your own breeze, and the faster you go, the cooler you are. The drawback is that the second you stop, it’s waiting to ambush you again, only worse than in the morning because now you’re hot from the exercise as well.

Most days Abby gets so hot that she says her brain is baking inside her skull. Any stop, regardless of the length, needs to be shaded, and our walking excursions turn into ninja training as we practice escaping detection by the evil Sensei Sunshine. She commando rolls from shade tree to shade tree, ducking under passing umbrellas and strategically using whatever cover is available. I struggle to keep up and wonder if maybe she needs to come clean about her prior training as an assassin.

Pattaya is hot, too, but it has lots of beaches, a sea breeze, and it rains the afternoon we visit. It's known as Thailand’s beach Sin City, more so even than Bangkok, but again we’re left scratching our heads at the perceived bad rap. Every place we’ve been told to hate we’ve loved, and this is no different. It’s not the best town, granted, but it's exciting and easy and beautiful enough and full of expats. It’s a cheap and exotic version of Florida.

After spending the morning looking trying to find some trouble, we decide that most of the sinning must happen between the hours of midnight and 8 am, while we were sleeping, since the X-rated factor is all boarded up on our exploration. We move on, keenly aware of our Bangkok deadline.

The road comes and goes from the coast, passing through mudflats, then shrimp farms, then industrial ports and finally back to beaches again. We stumble upon a guesthouse and bar a little off the beach that looks nice and advertises cheap rooms but doesn’t appear to get many guests. The receptionist is very surprised when we inquire about a room and eyes us warily. It’s not an unwelcoming look, instead conveying her confusion at the sudden appearance of the dirt bag gringo set at her front door. She obviously considers us a novelty and pays special attention, peppering us with questions whenever we come or go and smiling in wonderment when we tell her about our trip.

June 1 - Bang Saen to Bangkok
We cycle the final 100 kms back into the chaos of Bangkok. We’re excited and sad and nervous all at once. The traffic builds and builds until it plugs the roads completely and we resort to weaving our way through the endless rows of cars, following the motorcycles through the gaps and spaces as they appear and disappear like leads in pack ice. It requires focus and intensity and familiarity with your bike and I feel strong and confident as I lead us deeper and deeper into the heart of the mayhem. It turns out to be very manageable after two months of southeast Asian traffic, and fun.

We find our hotel, jump in the pool, then make arrangements to sell our bikes on Craigslist. Unfortunately, our rides won’t be coming home with us. In total, they carry us more than 3500 kms through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, and it’s a sad parting. A pregnant expat couple from Calgary become their new owners, and it’s apparent the bikes’ lives are about to get a whole lot easier. It feels like we're putting them out to pasture.

Abby’s practically falling asleep in her soup at dinner, but I’m still hungry and amped up from the traffic slalom so decide to head to the local market for a second dinner. The entire city comes alive after dark, and the streets around our hotel were alive with the bustle of dozens of vendors setting up their wares in anticipation of the nighttime rush on our way by this afternoon. On my way to the market I stumble upon a giant outdoor sports arena, filled with Thais playing any and all sports in the (relatively) cool night air. There’s volleyball, soccer, badminton, even tennis. And there’s beautiful, beautiful basketball, two full courts under the lights. I try to contain my excitement as I flip-flop my way nonchalantly over to the court and check out the action under the guise of taking photos.

When the game is finished, I ask if I can play and everyone is very enthusiastic at the prospect. I borrow a pair of shoes - no socks - and take the court. I’ve been doing nothing but cycling for two straight months, including a long day today. It isn’t pretty. I dream of nailing my first three when I step on the court with not a stitch of warm up, but I finish the night with way more more blisters (4) than points (0), and more air balls than everyone else combined. I do white basketball players the world over a disservice. The other players all remain very enthusiastic, despite my play. I’m sad when the lights are cut off at 9 pm and everyone leaves.

Tomorrow we have some last-minute souvenir shopping, an appointment for a Thai massage, and then a final night out at Pleasantville before it's homeward bound. I’m melancholy as I confront the end of our trip. I stop for a Beer Chang at the closest 7/11 on my way home and sit on the side of the busy street for a long time and watch life pass by. The lights and traffic and people and food smells sound energy are unending and intoxicating and I want to sit there forever and drink it all in. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about what lays before me, it's just life, beautiful, busy, bustling life. Each person I see has their own story, their own life, and they're all interwoven into the impossibly complex tapestry that I'm currently admiring. None of the individual threads need to be at all extraordinary to make up the most unimaginable whole. I love it; I could sit here forever. Life at home doesn't have nearly this same hold on me, the same fascination and power and curiosity, perhaps because it's too easy and familiar.

My beer is empty too soon, and I close my eyes to imprint the scene in my brain. I eventually get up and leave, walking slowly away from it all, happy to know that behind me, lives go on.

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