My ride up along the Gulf of Thailand was fairly bland due to a lack of non-highway options and due to the sun going on a 2-week hiatus, something that took me back to my Canadian winter days, but with the not so subtle difference of about 50 degrees Celsius.
The worst of it came on a day when I cycled 90km and it rained for all but 5 of them. Not heavy rain, just that annoying, little, God spitting in your face kind of rain. However, as is so often the case, it wasn’t all bad. Along the way I stopped in a tiny little village in a National Park where I inquired about buying some lunch. I was excitedly directed to a large fenced off area where it seems the entire village gathers to eat, drink and play cards; what better way to spend a rainy Thursday afternoon.
After joining the men for a few shots of Thai whisky, I pulled up a chair with the women where I indulged in some of the fattest and freshest prawns I’ve ever eaten. This took me back to my Australian summer days. I also unknowingly ate the spiciest dish I’ve ever had, which rendered me mute for a good 10 minutes and amused the women, who were eating the stuff by the handful (literally), for the same amount of time. After I’d had an absolute belly-full and had given my many thanks, I was sent back on my way with half a juicy watermelon.
All of a sudden the rain didn’t seem so bad.
A couple of days later I arrived in the beach town of Chaam, which being only 170kms south of Bangkok is a popular weekend getaway for the city slickers. This just happened to be the Queen’s Birthday long weekend and subsequently the place was packed and full of life. Food stalls lined the beach road, 2, 3 & 4-seater bicycles zig-zagged past them, inflatable 5-seater worms were dragged over the water by jet skis until 1 or all of the riders had been thrown off and Thais lounged about in beach chairs drinking beers and eating seafood. It was a very festive and chaotic atmosphere and a good change from the seedy beach town I’d just come from, Hua Hin, which catered to old European men who enjoyed the company of young Thai women.
It was in Chaam that I was to meet up with an old housemate from Georgina St, Newtown, Tam Pham. And as anyone who knows this happy little ball of energy would expect, she brought the weather with her; blue skies and sunshine, the first I’d seen in weeks. Tam and I spent a blissful few days in Chaam and were lucky enough to experience the festive Thai atmosphere as well as the utter peace, solitude and reduced accommodation rates when everyone returned to work in Bangkok.
A definite highlight for the entire tour came when Tam expressed to me that she thought it would be disgraceful to meet me on a cycling tour and not do a leg. I was overjoyed to hear this so in typical Chaam style, we hired a clunky, rusted out tandem bicycle and set off on the most enjoyable leg of the tour…………..all 3 kms of it. With Tam in the pilot’s seat up front, I was free to just sit back, gently pedal and take in the scenery of the nearby National Park we cycled around. It was super relaxing…………that is until Tam decided to see what would happen if she let go of the handlebars.
Once we’d soaked up enough sun, we decided it was time to make the journey to the Thai capital and centre of SE Asia, Bangkok, and what a journey it would be. I don’t know if it was the gentle southerly, the few days rest or the desire to get through the absolute ugliness that is the outskirts of Bangkok, but I decided to ride the entire 180kms in one day.
It was a constant battle as I encountered one dust covered road works site after another, terrible shoulderless pot hole-filled butt-mashing roads, huge black smoke-spewing trucks and the previous nights seafood dinner, which came back to haunt me at the 140km mark.
By the time I’d reached the outer part of the city I was running on pure adrenaline brought on by the desire to survive the crazy cabs, tuk-tuks and the ever-lawless scooters. When I eventually arrived at my guesthouse in backpacker central that is Khao San Rd, I had little love for this city of 10 million people. After I’d spent 5 days there, nothing had changed.
Bangkok is too crowded, too polluted, too noisy, has too much traffic and is too focused on consumption. One can not walk down the street without having to constantly dodge other pedestrians or a poorly placed food stall, it is not uncommon to wait 10 minutes for the little man to go green and then still have to dodge a scooter or taxi when crossing the road and seemingly everything in the city is aimed at having you empty your wallet.
You can buy anything, anytime. You got a hankering for handbags at 1am? No worries. Want watches at 3am? Just down the road. Desire a dress at 5am? Take a tuk-tuk!
It all proved to be a bit too suffocating for me.
In saying that, Tam and I did have a good time during our stay. Some highlights included a very relaxing Thai massage at the Buddhist temple of Wat Pho, a visit to the stunning Grand Palace and a lovely dinner at ‘Cabbages & Condoms.’ This chain of restaurants is part of an initiative aimed at educating Thais about safe sex to assist with family planning and reduce HIV infections, the idea being that condoms should be as common and as easy to buy as cabbages. It has had amazing results with the average number of children per family down from 7 in 1974 to 1.2 in 2000 and the number of new HIV infections dropping by 90% between 1991 and 2000. One can’t help but think that if other developing nations took such an open and innovative approach to these issues, they would be a thing of the past sooner rather than later.
After farewelling Tam who is heading home to Hanoi for 2 weeks before moving to scenic, mountainous and icy-cold Geneva, I set my attention to getting the hell out of Bangkok and if getting in was tough, this was no easier. 100kms later I was able to breath again and was only 200kms from the time warp that is Cambodia from where I daresay I’ll be writing my next entry.