A few things let me know that I was back in the land of smiles, otherwise known as Thailand; I was riding on the left-hand side of the road, which being an Aussie is my naturally preferred side; the number of bulky 4WDs screaming down the mostly pristine highways rivaled and probably surpassed that of the scooters; and the entertainment at what looked to be the Thai version of a big sausage sizzle I passed was a group of teenage girls in ultra short skirts dancing on stage.
It was good to be back.
My first stop beyond the border was the city of Ubon Ratchathani, the 4th biggest in Thailand. While I definitely enjoy my time in rural areas and embraced the rustic conditions in Laos, I was raised in Sydney, so it is no surprise that I like getting back to the familiarity and comforts of city life, at least for a little while. I had not experienced them for some months since nowhere in Laos, including the capital, can be considered anything more than a large town.
I don’t usually like supporting the multinationals such as Tesco and KFC that detract from Thai business, taking money out of the local economy and adding it to the stockpiles in the West, but I just had to drop in to a 7-11, which can be found on every second street corner, to experience the novelty of air conditioning and marked prices as well as to buy an icy-cold slurpee. It offered a little respite from the heat, which only intensified as I travelled from city to city through the north-east or Isaan states, renowned for being the hottest in the country. In addition, Isaan dishes are reputed to be the spiciest in Thailand. This combination no doubt led to many locals in the various night markets wondering not only who this falang was, but why he was covered in sweat while carrying out the fairly un-exhausting task of eating dinner. I would cycle 80kms in 35+ degree heat, but the hottest part of my day was sitting down in the evening to a plate of rice, meat and veggies, which the locals will have assured me was only pet nit noy (a little spicy). I soon figured out that Thai “a little” spicy equates to Australian “I can’t feel my face” spicy.
As was the case during my first leg in Thailand, my proficiency in the language has gone from strength to strength. No doubt it has helped that this is my second time here, it is a fairly simply constructed language and I had spent the previous two months attempting to speak Lao, which shares many similarities, but the main reason for my success is the openness of the Thai people. They are always keen to partake in some sort of verbal exchange and are willing to persist, despite my every second response being “mai kow jai” (“I don’t understand”). Eventually, things stick and it encourages me to continue to develop my knowledge because the relationships it allows me to form can be so rewarding, as will be shown shortly.
My skills have even reached a point whereby I can nearly attempt to pick up Thai girls;
”Cheu a-rai?” (“what is your name?”)
”Ah-yu tow rai?” (“how old are you?”) – This one is important because with these Asian women, as Luke would say, you just don’t know.
”Kun soo-ay” (“you are beautiful”)
”Pah kun glap bahn dai mai?” (“Can I take you home”)
Brief and to the point and as of yet, unsuccessful. Mind you, it is also untested.
Having been on the flats for over six weeks, when I encountered a 20km climb that seemingly appeared from nowhere, it came as somewhat of a shock to the system and I was relieved to reach the top and find a plethora of resorts. “Resort” being the word used for any type of accommodation outside a town centre and definitely not to be mistaken for what we in the West associate with tennis courts and cocktails by the pool.
The highland area in and around Khao Kho is popular among Thai tourists for its mountain scenery and picturesque waterfalls, but since I was really only passing through, I thought that I would try to find a place to rest my head away from the centre of things and save a few baht. This would prove to be a most favourable decision for reasons that far surpassed cost in importance.
I followed some signs along a small road off the highway, turned down a gravel driveway and came to a tidy, compact resort. In a horseshoe shape were about ten timber huts, some more extravagant than others with upper level balconies, intricately carved railings and fireplaces, but all were pristine and constructed with a clear attention to detail. In the centre of the horseshoe was an immaculately landscaped garden topped with the greenest grass and decorated with shrubs, small trees and bright flowers that encompassed every colour of the rainbow. I was greeted by a woman with a beaming smile, dressed in her Sunday best, strolling around the garden in her heels beneath a dainty umbrella. I would very fondly come to know her as Fah.
After she all too easily let me bargain her down for one of the more modest huts, I requested a bucket so that I could wash a few items of clothing. She instructed me to give the sweat-soaked clothes to Kits, who would take care of them for me, Kits being a young lad who helped out around the place. “Free service,” she said.
I was skeptical. If there is something that I have learnt on my travels and indeed, in life, it is that little comes for free. Nonetheless, I gave Kits my clothes and had a shower, after which I found a shady spot in the garden to do a bit of reading. Fah, who had since changed outfits, soon appeared and presented me with a bowl full of rose apples, some sliced watermelon and an icy cold coke. “Free service,” she said. My skepticism remained.
Later that afternoon, she asked if I would like to come for a drive. I eagerly accepted the opportunity to ride in a car for the third time in nine months, so Fah, her daughter, Tip, Kits and I piled in. I, of course, was given the honour of riding shotgun. Our first stop was a fruit stall where Fah shouted everyone divine shakes made from locally-grown, fresh strawberries. My efforts to pay for mine proved futile.
We then dropped into the market where it became clear to me that Fah, who teaches at the local high school, was somewhat of a pillar of this small community, as teachers often are. She bought the ingredients for the evenings meal, which by this stage, such was the sense of homeliness and family I felt, it was simply understood I would be sharing in, no invitation was required. Our final stop was the local Buddhist wat where Fah mixed some cordial in an esky and gave it as an offering to the monks who resided there.
By the time we had returned home, my skepticism had dissolved. I had simply struck gold in meeting this beautiful woman who displayed the kind of unconditional generosity that can really only be expected from family and close friends. Whether it was because she took pity on me because I am travelling kon dee-o (alone) or because she sensed that I was in need of some motherly love, Fah wished to take me under her wing and I shamelessly let her. Being the mother of two daughters, she did not know the English word for “son,” so I simply became daughter number three.
At dinner that night I feasted on an array of dishes centred around a ‘Thai BBQ’; a hotplate upon which an endless amount of marinated meat and seafood was thrown, only to be passed to my bowl accompanied by the sound of Fah urging me to ”gin ee, gin ee” (“eat more, eat more”). I stuffed myself until I could gin mai ee.
I had intended to hit the road again the following day, but Fah insisted that I stay, as she was hosting some sort of Buddhist feast, though what it involved exactly could not be properly communicated through the language barrier. In any case, while receiving this kind of treatment, I did not need much convincing.
I awoke the next day to find eight monks seated in a single row on the timber floorboards of the deck and women rushing around everywhere, continuously adding to the vast quantities of food spread out on a nearby table. It seems that the Buddhist feast was to be similar to that which I experienced at a temple I camped at in southern Thailand.
The proceedings began with twenty minutes of prayer that involved hypnotic and hauntingly beautiful call and response chanting by the eight men in bright orange robes, at the end of which the various dishes were placed before them. They ate in near silence while the crowd of about fifteen, consisting only of women, children and myself, sat by and watched on patiently.
At some point, the monk who had led the prayers and was clearly the life of the party, invited me to sit beside him. He reached into his bag and revealed a circular, wooden pendant, in the centre of which was inlaid a bronze image of Buddha. As he placed it around my neck, he told me that it would bring me much good luck and that I was the only person to whom he had given such a pendant. I felt honoured and thanked him whole-heartedly, for life on the road can be tough and I can do with all the good fortune I can get.
It was only after the monks had had their fill, the plates had been cleared, final prayers had been spoken and our monastic guests had departed, that everyone else was permitted to get stuck into the leftovers. Once again, at the insistence of Fah, get stuck in I did. I must have eaten more over these two days than I had for the previous two weeks.
Fah assured me that due to the mornings events, it was a ‘good luck day’ and we spent it sightseeing and perusing the lively Friday market where I was further spoilt, before dropping into the temple to make yet another offering. That evening, after I had gin ee gin ee until I could gin mai ee, Fah presented me with a protective amulet that I was to wear alongside my Buddha pendant and that she said would keep me safe from harm. She had only parted with one other, which had been given to her elder daughter’s boyfriend, so once again I felt honoured to be among such an exclusive group of recipients. I will wear it until the day I die and it will always act as a reminder of the two blissful days I spent in Khao Kho, where I was touched by the grace, generosity, warmth and love of a beautiful person, the likes of whom I will be very lucky to encounter again during my travels.
As expected, Fah refused payment for the hut and sent me on my way with a parcel of food and water. We said goodbye, but it shall not be for long, for it just so happens that she will be in Chiang Mai at the same time that Mum will be visiting me there. I know what everyone is thinking; cage fight. Thai Mum vs Biological Mum in a battle for my love.
While I won’t rule it out completely, I think that they would both prefer to sit down to a civilised Thai dinner.
On an absolute high from my heart-warming experience, I hit the road once more and a few days later entered the city of Sukhothai. Established as the nation’s first capital in the 13th century, Sukhothai translates, oh so fittingly given the culture that has evolved, as “Dawn of Happiness.” It is home to visually magnificent and excellently-preserved temple ruins that are spread out over an area of 45 square kilometers and most notably incorporate many chedis that tower over graceful Buddha statues. I found the experience of cycling around the ancient city surreal, as similar beautifully-landscaped grounds can be found at many city parks around the world, but few are dotted with such a collection of stunning 700 year old monuments.
Just 25kms after departing the “Dawn of Happiness,” with the sun on my back, my odometer clicked over to five figures; 10,000kms. This is a milestone that I am very proud of.
When I first decided to embark on the tour, I allowed myself one goal; to get on a plane and land in KL, Malaysia. I dared not set my sights any further than that because there were just too many uncertainties and fears. Having never really travelled before, let alone done so by bicycle, I did not know how I would take to leaving the comforts of home and adapt to a nomadic lifestyle. I did not know how I would handle the isolation, not only from my family and friends, but from people with whom I can converse in my native tongue.
One thing I did know is that I was not coming for a holiday. I wanted to be challenged and the tour has not disappointed. Some challenges were foreseen, some not so, but I feel that all have been met positively and ultimately overcome, yielding invaluable lessons and personal developments in the process.
Overall, the tour and the way in which I have thrived on it have exceeded all expectations. I never expected to find such passion and purpose and to simply become 100% sure that this is what I am supposed to be doing. For this I feel blessed because I know that in this world, where we in the West have so many options and are bombarded by distractions, how elusive passion and purpose can be.
Not for a long time has anything felt so right and I am overjoyed to be able to say that I can not wait for the next 10,000.