Ayutthaya - Sukhothai ... 10/11/08 - 14/11/08
We leave Ayutthaya on Monday morning.
Monday is the day of the king and many people are dressed in yellow to show their respect. The monarchy is everywhere in Thailand and one shouldn't criticise it. Everywhere, flags flap in the wind: the blue, white and red flag of Thailand and the yellow flag of the king. The king and the royal family are pictured on giant posters in the streets. In cinemas, everyone stands up for the national anthem played before the movie!
Our next stop is Lop Buri, the city of apes. They have completely invaded some areas of the city, like pigeons in Paris. But witnessing how aggressive they are and the damage they make, we wonder if the pigeons are not a lesser evil. All windows and balconies are fenced with wire netting to prevent monkeys from entering the houses. We spot one, its hand in the trunk of a pick-up truck! This wicked little creature is emptying the trunk at a traffic light: washing powder, not edible, out, cooking oil, not good either, out... We finally warn the driver who hadn't noticed the circus going on at the back of his car.
Thanks to two young Thai girls (missionaries, Dimitri is disappointed), we find a good bike shop. We all have repairs to do: Dimitri broke two spokes and Sylvie's rear derailleur doesn't seem to work. We leave two hours later with new bicycles... almost! Ben then takes us on a tour of the temples and palaces of the city. One palace was built in Khmer and colonial styles, a strange mix. A ruined temple has been completely taken over by the monkeys. A group of tourists finds it difficult to listen to the explanations of their guide, monkeys jump on their shoulders, ruffling their hair. Young monkeys are the most energetic, jumping on top of the temple, on the roof of the ticket office, swinging from the gutters. The old monkeys stand out with their round belly and their arrogant air... For sure, we wouldn't like to have to deal with them!
We have dinner outside, at the market. A multitude of small stalls are setup along the train tracks: a small cart with all the ingredients, a small charcoal stove, some tables and stools. We find everything: a variety of soups, pat thai (noodles fried in a wok), fried rice with vegetables, meat skewers, grilled chicken, grilled fish ... we are really spoiled for choice. We go for a pat Thai, and then, a second one. It's always the same story: when we ask for a second plate, the cook thinks we want to pay! We have to show creativity to make her understand we are still hungry. Thai people must have the appetite of a bird! Unless we are the ones eating like ogres.
The next day, we continue our journey north. We won't stay in tourist areas before Sukhothai so we are not sure to find hotels. We would like to camp. But many lands are flooded and look like large silver mirrors that reflect the sky and the trees. It will be some time before the fields dry up. We see a lot of dead snakes partially or totally parched, on the side of the road, fluorescent green, brown... We even see a 1.5m one, similar to a python. So we are not so enthusiastic about setting up our tent in a swamp filled with snakes. There are also varans, or big lizards. Dimitri sees one, the length of his bike, fleeing in the forest. We see or hear some smaller ones. When riding our bikes, we often hear rustling in the grass, there is a busy parallel life of which we barely have an idea!
This time of the year is the time for harvesting the rice. Some fields are still green, others are being harvested, or they look desolate, muddy and empty. The rice is put to dry on the roadsides, in the courtyards of houses and people rake it up for it to dry. It is exactly the same technique we witnessed in China. We pass some funny vehicles on the road, they look like a tractor engine with a very long tail attached to a trailer. Thai people use it as a tractor in the fields and then use it to drive home. At lunch time, we stop in a small restaurant on the roadside. It's been built between a straw hut and a shed, open to the wind, a small kitchen, some tables and benches. There is nothing around here, and we sometimes wonder if they don't set up these small restaurants just to feed their families and the people living round the corner. We devour two delicious plates of fried rice with chicken and vegetables.
People are always surprised to see us but they are very respectful. We appreciate it after the exuberance of Central Asia. On the road and in villages, people wave at us with a big smile. Sometimes they shout 'helloooooo'. They show so much kindness that we never feel agressiveness and we answer back to everyone. Until now, drivers had the annoying habit of honking. Greetings were sometimes screamed which gave us very little desire to stop.
A few kilometres before Tak Fa, where we decided to stop, we find a rest area. We had forgotten it existed. The guards are very friendly and they lend us a small room which they probably use to take a nap. The bed is wide enough to sleep the three of us and there are showers and toilets outside. They just made three cyclists very happy! We have dinner at the hotel on the other side of the road. The lady is a little disturbed to see us on foot and without luggage: 'Where do you sleep?' 'Uh, we setup our tent somewhere over there', we reply vaguely. We don't want to give the guards any trouble for having helped us.
We leave the next day, rested. We regret the privacy of our tent but it's so nice to get rid of the sweat and the dust in the evening. We have breakfast in Tak Fa, on a table near a small store while women prepare bunches of flowers for tonight. The full moon in November usually coincides with the end of the rainy season. Thai people thank Konkha Mae, the goddess of water, for her generosity during the monsoon. At night, they lay "Krathong" on rivers, lakes, ponds and the sea. These small boats made of banana leaf hold flowers, a candle, three incense sticks and, overall, the hope that the desired wishes will be fulfilled. Thai people also send in the sky, large illuminated balloons that become as many new stars. We are torn between spending a quiet day with them and leaving. But the call of the road is stronger. Before we leave, everybody insists on being photographed with us.
We cycle on quiet roads lined with lush vegetation: palm trees, coconut trees, sugar cane, tall grass, unknown giant trees ... This garden of Eden is full of strange insects and animals. In the afternoon, we pause near a store, well a straw hut. We meet Pong who speaks fluent English, it is rather surprising in such a small village. He travelled abroad, especially in India where he met some English people ... who now work as English teachers in the next city. He gives us their phone number for tonight, great! In the next town, we can't resist stopping at a Tesco Lotus (Asian Tesco). We splash out on oat flakes and Chocopops, the rest is less expensive at the local markets. A little bit later, a tall blonde girl in a fuschia mini dress, Dolce and Gabanna sunglasses, and a candy pink scooter approaches us. Ah, it must be one of the English girls Pong told us about! She is going to see a friend but she says we can call her to meet up tonight... Bang Mun Nak, like all towns and villages in Thailand tonight, is invaded by processions. Children and teenagers, wearing costumes and make up, parade to the sound of local orchestras. What a festive atmosphere!
The next day we are back on the road. We have lunch in Phichit, none of us seem in a hurry to leave. Obviously, we are starting to be overcome by the general feeling of "farniente", we will soon turn apathetic! Since we changed our itinerary in Uzbekistan, we feel like we are on holiday. We can hear you protest: 'But you are on holiday all the time!' No! We are doing an MBA (Master in Bike and Adventure), that's very different... Actually changing plans freed us from the route we initially planned. For the first time, we have stopped our journey to the east. The sun is no longer in front of us in the morning but on our right. For the first time, we also are coming back to our starting point: We start with a loop, from Bangkok to north Thailand, to Vientiane and back to Bangkok. Then we fly to New Zealand and Australia before returning for a second time to Bangkok. Then, we are back to business with Khirghistan...
That night, we stop in Phitsanulok, a rather busy small provincial town. All these small towns are a welcome break from the more touristy sites like Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. They are as pleasant and without the crowds of tourists. We stock up on milk and cereals at the 7 Eleven, a 24/24 supermarket before going for dinner to the market. One of the employees of the guesthouse takes us there and kindly orders three pad thai! We finish the evening with a stroll at the night market. Most of the trinkets on display are useless but it's fun to watch. And we find two small soft toys frogs, our mascots! Dimitri meets a French tourist:
- So how was the ride in the cyclo-rickshaw?
- Great, you should have come!
- Oh, I travel by bike from Europe, so, in the evenings, I prefer to walk!
- Travelling by bike from Europe... Yes of course and you left from Marseille?
(For those unfamiliar with French jokes, we say someone is from the South or Marseille when he exaggerates.)
An upset Dimitri comes back to us: 'I can't believe it, she doesn't believe me!' We show her our cycling sandals and our bike tan but she doesn't seem convinced. We are bewildered, someone doesn't believe us! Bloody French!
Sukhothai ... 14/11/08 - 16/11/08
The next day we reach Sukhothai, around noon. Before looking for a guesthouse, we look for food. The advantage of starting early is that we avoid the heat which starts around 11 am. We are more efficient on the bike and when we arrive, we can enjoy the afternoon!
After a fried rice with vegetables, we enjoy a fruit smoothie (two for some! Yes Ben of course) before starting the hunt for the dream guesthouse... and we find it! A small wooden bungalow in the back of a garden. We wake up in the morning to the sound of chirping birds. After having breakfast on the terrace, we spend most of our day chilling out. We go out to fetch some beer, fruit juices and crisps at the 7 Eleven, not a good day ends without a nice drink! One afternoon, we are reading outside when we hear a rustle of leaves and a 'Thomp!' on the ground. A large snake undulates on the path, turns his head like the periscope of a submarine and jumps on its prey. A few seconds later we see the rear legs of a frog wriggling in his mouth. We go for a tour of Sukhothai's historical park. The temples are set in a green park, we find it more beautiful than Ayutthaya where the temples were scattered in and out of the city. We spend the afternoon pedalling from one temple to another. In the evening, we have dinner at the guesthouse, the green curry and massamun curry (yellow curry) are so good, why go somewhere else? We end the evening playing Jenga (a game where you try to remove bricks without making the tower collapse) with the owners' daughter.
Our memories of three years ago superimpose on those we are building right now. This is a country we have visited twice but differently. We now understand what differs from a trip by bicycle to a travel by bus or train. We spend a lot more time on the road than in cities and all our experiences, riding under the sun, having lunch on the side of the road, the harvesters in the rice paddies, speeding up on a flat portion of the road, the green landscapes, the people we meet or those who greet us from the side of the road... all these memories actually take so much more importance than anything we see when we stop for a few days in a city. Discovering a country is much more than visiting its cities and seeing the landscape scroll through the window of a bus. We know everyone doesn't have the time to travel by bike but if you have the opportunity, even for a day or two, it is truly a great experience!