Another 60km to Phangnga City today. We rode past banana plantations and invented a game playing diffractometry with the rows of trees. Thais are big inventors and reusers too, like the siamese motorcycle I mentioned yesterday or the roadside trash cans made entirely of a repurposed and inverted tire, with the stand assembled from cut up quarters of the sidewall. Instead of installing electric lights in their outside bathrooms, they make the doors translucent plastic and let the sun do the work. Even their national hero, Phraya Phichai, protected the kingdom against a Burmese invasion by fighting with two broken swords. They create art and beauty where there was none (bed origami in every hotel / menageries folded in linen) and everything that can be painted the color of an orchid, is. Even royalty participates: the king is a photographer and the number one princess is an actress.
In the late afternoon we rested and watched a transvestite cabaret on TV with horrified fascination, not because of the gender norms but because that is seriously the least melodious xylophone playing I have ever heard. We gathered with our guides for dinner just as the giant fruit bats were impressively doing the same, but then the meal was ruined by this horrible old Floridian woman who complained about everything, even the unparalleled shrimp with tamarind sauce that I could have eaten ten of. Danny and I claimed an aversion to the restaurant’s moquitoes and instead of lingering over Leo and nam kang we went for a long walk on the boardwalk through the mangrove swamp.
Kayaking off Phuket today was a joyful break from the bike tour. We caught the big boat to Phangnga NP with an American family based in Hong Kong, a gay couple from Brighton (actually Hove), and a newly engaged pair of med students from Madison who will later turn out to be planning residencies at UCSF. We paddled pretty far out Ao Phangnga before reaching the sea caves, which were dark and creepy and delightfully populated with soft bats. Some of the islands were vertical cylinders with squat holes in the side, where if you time the tide just right and lie down flat in your kayak, propelling yourself forward using the oyster shells on the walls, you can effectively pass through the walls and to the mangrove swamp or the monkey lagoon on the inside. An advantage to going in a kayak is that the vibrations of a diesel motor don’t scare away all the wildlife, so we got to see eagles and monitor lizards and hunting kites, but I couldn’t take pictures of much because my camera died in the humidity.
We had a long lunch swimming in the bay and jumping off the boat, so I evened out my biker tan a little in a Thai sarong and the salt water was good for Danny’s disgusting scabby elbow. We encountered a few other boats during the day: a 70-foot yacht flying a Malaysian flag and winching jetskis off the stern as we passed, a crab boat where the pilot tried to talk to us about his catch. He insisted that the blue crabs were all female and the green were all male, but Noom later confirmed that this was tourist baloney.
The Noom van is a great home base during the day, and the trip is organized into sections beforehand so we got a printout each morning of the day’s route with the turns and landmarks so it was ok to split up and ride at our own pace. Dealing with Thai traffic by ourselves wasn’t so bad once we comprehended that it is set up more like a ski slope than a California freeway: your concern is what is in front of you, and the people behind you can suck a nut if you don’t see them when you are trying to merge, because where you are is their responsibility. The best vehicle sighting of the day was a homemade siamese (!) twin of a two-engine (not two-wheel, not two-cylinder) motorcycle where the two bike bodies flank a cart and the one throttle controlled them both. I think that the scent memory of the combination of unburned diesel, Ant Phwe (off-brand tiger balm), and sunscreen will forever evoke Thailand for me, and as a prologue for the next few days, today was the first day I ended up a little sunburnt due to negligence.
Khao Lak is a coastal town big enough that we started seeing farang on rented scooters a few miles out, but we cyclists are still a novelty. As a direct result of the 2004 tsunami, earthquake and other disaster evacuation routes are signposted in Thai, English, and German every few hundred feet, and the hotel rooms have little flashlights and first aid kits. Yet another baller cliff hotel with a teal swimming pool, but this time more “on” the cliffs than “amongst” them, if you can visualize the geometry. We got our laundry done and watched NHK World until dinner, celebrating another successful day of 60km with Leo beer and shrimp wrapped in fried noodle.
Societal interactions today were both religio-political and natural-spiritual. We started the morning at a big dam where we had our IDs held under the current higher security protocol against the local Muslim separatists who want to secede from Thailand and join Malaysia in the medium term and the global caliphate in the long term. Mid-morning we cycled by a cave opening on a river where there were Buddha statues for every day of the week, two for Wednesday. Friday births like ME are contemplating the suffering of the world in front of the banyan tree, and then any day birth can scale the tiny wall and go feed the fish in the “hot sprinkle”.
Lunch of pad see ew is more complicated when you do it right. “See” means four, so it is officially the “noodle dish of the four flavors”: sweet, spicy, sour, salty. I had never imagined pad see ew with sugar, let me tell you, but it is actually good. Unrelatedly, I had spent the previous night with a bit of Bangkok belly, but a bit of local brand Gatorade and some sala fruit (= banana + pineapple + calamansi in a snakeskin) eventually settled me down. Total distance for the day of 60km again, and Danny has been re-bandaged securely enough to release khom loy over the still-spectacular midnight cliffs. During the assembly and lighting of the lanna fire lanterns we met Joop and Frances, a spectacular role model of a Dutch couple who has lived all over the world and been kidnapped in Venezuela and attended voodoo ceremonies in Gabon and are among the most beautiful human beings I have ever encountered, bar none. We spent hours on their cabin’s balcony drinking vodka and will meet them in St. Petersburg for Christmas next year.
Our first day of riding started auspiciously enough with a one way nit noy but it started raining a bit before lunch and Danny bit it in a pothole at the bottom of a wet hill, bonking his elbow and chest and bending his bike frame. It so happened that one of the first passers-by was a volunteer fireman (or something?) so he jumped on his cell phone and within not too many minutes, two well-intentioned young men on a scooter showed up, carrying a plastic toolbox full of bandaids and buttoning their RESCUE shirts. They decided that his wounds were too serious for them so we all trooped half a mile through a rubber plantation to a clinic (co-pay: 30THB/$1) where they stiched him up and 37 mysterious friends showed up to take cell phone pictures. A sharkbanana was presented to the most helpful.
This is cliff country, specifically karst limestone, and except for the shockingly steep ascents in some places, looks as if you dumped a bunch of fertilizer on Honduras. Every village has a gilded wat and in between villages are rubber, teak, and palm oil farms–how convenient that I recently finished The Glass Palace. Every house also has its vicious dogs and children shouting “Hello!”. Lunch was exciting because it was the best fried rice I have had in forever served in a roadside stall with a nice monk watching muay thai at the adjacent table. The screaming of cicadas permeates everything.
The hotel was wow, wow, wow, nestled in a national park and surrounded by cliffs.
Here is a thing about Thailand. Except for flip-flopped families piled on motorcycles together, urban Thailand is mostly just so *normal*. Half a block down from our Surat Thani overnight resort, there is a Tesco/Lotus shopping plaza. In the shopping plaza is a Boots, a KFC, a Dunkin’ Donuts, an Auntie Anne’s Pretzel….it is the Nittany Mall moved to Hanley and with a psychedelic take on the typography.
But here’s the real thing. It is totally *not* normal, in every way they feel like. The woman serving us at the checkout stand at the Tesco was wearing al amira…..and a Santa hat. Next to the acres of Fanta there is a whole aisle full of flavored cuttlefish snacks. Instead of melon and grapes in the store-brand party platter, they have dragonfruit and mangosteen. Contrast the selective Westernization of Thailand, where it feels like that they had a real understanding of what they have chosen not to adopt, with Japan, where no matter how enthusiastically it looks like they do adopt things, it always seems like they hilariously missed the point, or with the Philippines, where it seems like they tried but that what they do copy is an offbrand imitation.
Anyway. Lunch was two nice ladies at a street storefront with some kind of gourd curry and overwhelming delight when we tried speaking some Thai. Danny and I went for a boiling herbal ball auto-yoga massage by the 100-pound gentle beast in the hotel spa, and in the evening we met our guides for the trip, Tom and Noom.
Thailand happened. I’ll do the individual events chronologically as always, but let me summarize straight off and declare that it was great but that we will probably never do it again. The structure of the trip centered around a nine-day, 200-mile bike ride across the southern isthmus from Surat Thani to Krabi, with a few days break in the middle to go sea kayaking and a few days afterwards in Bangkok. Neither I nor Danny is a “cyclist”, per se, but the trip offered by Pedalers Pub and Grille (operating out of Florida for tax purposes but actually based in Chiang Mai) was rated green for “accessible” so we were willing to give it a try. Danny prepared by renting $7,000 worth of camera lenses and I prepared by reading a history of the border with Burma, but otherwise we pretty much winged the whole trip. Thailand is a nice low stress country where you can do that and still make it home in one piece.
Our new requirement for luxury and the miracle of an AmEx Centurion meant we got companion tickets to fly Cathay Pacific business class via Hong Kong, meerkats peering at each other over our 8-way adjustable dens between the champagne and the truffle courses. I read a North African cyberpunk novel and napped in the flat bed but Danny couldn’t sleep so has a thousand photos of cracking ice sheets over the Bering Strait. The new Bangkok Airport, Suvarnabhumi (sue-wanna-poom), thinks highly enough of itself to translate to “mainland Southeast Asia” according to my map book, but the cutest and most Thai thing other than the ubiquitous posters of the king with his Nikon is the statue of Ronald McDonald making wai in the food court.