Bangkok ... 29/10/08 - 07/11/08
7.30 pm ... the plane lands after a 5-hour flight and a short trip above the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. Three years ago, we travelled for a month in Thailand and for the past two weeks, we keep saying 'when we will be in Thailand, we will ... drink iced coffee, eat sticky rice with coconut cream...'. As anyone who has planned a trip knows, half of the fun is in the anticipation! Although we know what awaits us, we still have a shock when we land. The airport is air conditioned, clean, and bright. Conveyors carry passengers at full speed towards the exit and the transfer areas. A small stamp in the passport and that's it, we are welcomed in Thailand! Some air hostesses pass next to us like a graceful flight of birds ... that's also Thailand. We suddenly feel a bit awkward and clumsy in our huge pale bodies. Our luggage arrives quickly; we can now go and get our bikes at the 'oversize luggage' counter. We see a surfboard, a stroller and some strange shape items but no bikes in sight. Stories are starting to unroll in our heads: maybe we didn't give enough money to the baggage men in Tashkent, or they haven't had the time to put them on the plane. Fortunately, a smiling hostess informs us that there is a second counter and, oh, relief! Our babies are there! It is too late for us to cycle to Bangkok. We prefer to spend the night in the airport. We are happy to eat Thai cuisine again: rice soup with chicken and fried rice with vegetables and chicken. Ben hesitates to buy an ice coffee but finally decides to wait for more reasonable prices! It takes us four hours to unpack and especially put back the bikes together. From the bike seat to the bell and the mirrors, we try to put each piece of the jigsaw back in the right place. At 3 am, we collapse on the steel benches for a short rest. At 5 am, the airport wakes up, cleaners polish the floor and the first passengers arrive. At 7 am, we feel we are getting in the way, people are sitting at the end of our benches. Come on, tramps, time to get up! Time for breakfast and a stroll to the bookshop (Sylvie pretends she is looking for a guidebook for Thailand but Ben is not fooled!). We meet two cyclists. The first one is Australian, on a 3 weeks holiday. The second one is German and lives in Lampang, a city one hundred km south of Chiang Mai. He is crazy about cycling and has even built a recumbent! He invites us to stay at his home when we get there. Great, we have a contact before we even leave the airport!
We cycle along the streets of Bangkok to reach the city centre where Yannick and Stephanie live. The streets are buzzing with animation and we are feeling a bit dizzy after the quiet towns of Uzbekistan. There are food stalls on the pavement every 10 m. Tempting smells emanate from them: noodle soup, rice and vegetables fried in a wok, all kinds of salads and many other dishes we cannot identify. Sylvie is dying to stop and have a go! Motorcycles and scooters are passing by, roaring. This is probably the greatest danger of the traffic here, once you get accustomed to cycle on the left side. Scooters arrive at full speed behind us and we have to be careful when we overtake a car parked on the side. We are struck by the multitude of people in the streets. The few foreigners we notice seem drowned in a sea of Thais. We finally arrive at Yannick and Stephanie's flat, in the expat district. A forest of buildings is towering above us, making street vendors look like ants. They have a beautiful flat on the 21st floor of one of the towers. Sylvie and Yannick studied in the same engineering school in Strasbourg and they both spent their final year in Quebec, where they met Ben. We haven't seen Stephanie and Yannick for 10 years but they haven't changed a bit. The family has grown bigger with two little girls, Leeloo and Keira. It's funny to see students turned into young parents!
Thanks to them, we have a very relaxing week. When we stay at a hotel, we never really feel at home and we always have to go out for the internet, eating, washing our clothes. Here we can do everything without moving and while the washing machine runs, we can watch a movie! We had forgotten how great it is to have a home (and be lazy). Thanks a lot, Yannick and Stephanie! As we have already visited Bangkok and part of Thailand three years ago, we don't feel under pressure to visit. So, we update the website, buy a small Acer laptop (for the website!), look for maps and guides, decide on the route through Thailand and Laos... and chill out! We had missed on the VIP cinema last time: leather seats, as wide as first class seats in a plane with a cushion that lifts up for the legs. A waiter comes to take our orders, a huge pot of popcorn and drinks, and here starts the latest James Bond. We all agree, the film is not brilliant, but the seats...!
It is the end of the monsoon. The heat is suffocating, and the air extremely humid. The first few days we feel tired, it is quite normal after the cool temperatures of Uzbekistan. We permanently have a thin film of sweat on our skin. What is it going to be when we ride? We witness violent storms: strong wind, lightning, thunder that echoes between the towers, all the ingredients are there. It is safe now but what about when we will be on the road?
The day we leave, we are joined by Dimitri, who has just landed from India. We had left him in Yazd in Iran with Bruno. They went on to Bandar Abbas and Dubai before flying to Delhi, where Dimitri left his bike to take on the role of 'backpacker'. He landed at 5 am but feels fresh enough to cycle with us to Ayutthaya.
Bangkok - Ayutthaya ... 07/10/08 - 10/10/08
Leaving Bangkok is less complex than we expected. We ride on big avenues and then suddenly find ourselves in the countryside. Wooden houses on stilts border one side of the road, gardens and field the other side. Since Turkey, we have mainly ridden through arid landscapes, roasted by the sun. Here, we are stricken by the number of different shades of green: the light green paddy fields ready to be harvested, the dark green banana trees, the tall grass on the side of the road, trees of all species ... The weather is hot and humid but this extensive palette of greens brings a breath of fresh air.
Dimitri makes a dash but we catch up with him a few km later. A police officer has stopped him on the roadside, what has he done now? But the officer, laughing, is watching Dimitri sign his notepad. He just wants an autograph! We are delighted to leave our signature. We would nearly pass for champions.
At about 3 pm, clouds start gathering above our heads, like some threatening puffy grey cotton. A small drizzle starts. Fortunately, Ben and Dimitri notice a petrol station. 'Losers!' laughs Sylvie. A few minutes later, the sky gives them reason. Torrents of water flow and, in a few minutes, our shelter is flooded. We even have to remove the lower bags on Sylvie's bicycle otherwise it would soon float! Ben and Dimitri enjoy their break, drinking some chilled Fanta and Sylvie tastes a strange dessert made of noodles and green jelly. The boys pull disgusted faces but she enjoys the unusual texture! We talk of our travels since we last saw each other when we hear a massive sound and see a spark on an electric pole a few meters away. The lightning fell close!
We arrive early in the evening in Ayutthaya. Ben thinks he remembers the city layout but it is too big and the streets all look alike. Still, he remembers the guesthouses are near a KFC and that is how we end up in the same guesthouse than three years ago, a big two-storey wooden house. We have to carry all our bags to the top but it is worth it. We get a huge dormitory just for the three of us! We always get a shock when we arrive in tourist areas. We pedal all day between rice paddies and houses on stilts and, all of a sudden, we are thrown into the artificial paradise of backpackers; Boys and girls walking around in shorts or miniskirt and sandals among floodlit bars and restaurants. We are far from the rural life we saw today. We are happy to be with other foreigners but we know that most of the tourists are coming for a few weeks and they do not necessarily travel in the same spirit as us. Travelling on a bicycle isolates us from the other travellers. The concerns, the route, the means of transport are different. Cycling brings us many joys, we feel privileged to cross towns and countryside untouched by tourism. But we would like sometimes to meet more people and feel less isolated.
We have already visited Ayutthaya and its historical site three years ago but we enjoy pedalling amongst the temples and see again our favourites, especially the alignment of majestic Buddhas clad in yellow and orange scarves. Apart from visiting, we spend a lot of time reading, writing and chilling out... Thailand is sweetness symbolised. Ben and Dimitri have actually decreed they could spend their time drinking coffee and chatting... After two days we shake ourselves out of it, it is time to leave!