Sukhothai - Lampang ... 17/11/08 - 22/11/08
We always try to leave early in the morning but between having breakfast, stocking up on water... we never manage to leave before 8.30, except on a few mornings. Dimitri goes ahead today, maybe we will find him in the next village unless he decides to go further. At around 11 am, the heat becomes overwhelming. The trees on the roadside are not providing us with enough shade and Sylvie starts suffering from the heat. Our temples pulsing, salty sweat running down our forehead and into our eyes, we speed up to escape the burning hell. Dimitri, dumbfounded, watches us arrive all red and panting: 'How did you do it? I've barely finished my first soup!' The heat gives wings. It is very difficult to leave after lunch, you have relaxed and your muscles have cooled down. Who would leave when the sun is burning? We have cycled 75 km, and are satisfied, let's call it a day!
In our quest for a hotel, we land in what looks like a children's library, tiled floor, pastel colours, and bookshelves. Some women try to help us draw a map so we can find a guesthouse. After three sheets of paper, the road stretches on and we realize it is 20 km from here and we would have to go back here tomorrow to get back on right the road! We chat a bit with the women before leaving. They point at Sylvie's skin and laugh. We are suntanned, quite dark and they don't understand: 'Why don't you wear a long-sleeve shirt?' Here, the people who work in the fields are suntanned. The others try to get a pale skin at all costs: umbrella, whitening creams, long sleeves and they completely cover up when riding a motorcycle... The cultural differences are sometimes amusing: in Asia, suntan means working outside in the fields but in Europe, it means taking some time off and going on holiday.
We end up in a small bungalow, not as nice as in Sukhothai but it is only for one night. A man sees us putting our clothes to dry on the fence and he rushes towards us: 'No, no, not here, it could get stolen!' A bit put off, we stack the three bikes in the bathroom. In the evening, we meet one of the women we saw this afternoon. She offered us to stay at her home but she was laughing so we were a bit unsure. In Central Asia, if someone decides to invite you home, you have no choice, you can't refuse, it is like being kidnapped! So, we thought she was merely being polite. But tonight she insists we have coffee at her home tomorrow morning. So perhaps it wasn't a false invitation? We arrive at 6:30 am the next morning. She lives with her mother and her daughter who leaves for school soon afterwards. We understand the school in Utaradit is better than in Si Satchanalai where we stay but it is far, that's a long day for a nine-year-old girl. A coffee, some croissants and a photo later, we are on our way. Once again, we cover 75 km in the morning. Wang Chin is a quiet village on the edge of a river. This time, we stay in a resort! It is beautiful, surrounded by lush gardens. From the start, we have been sleeping three in the same room. The rooms are big enough and people often give us a mattress. Dimitri always sacrifices himself to sleep on the floor. That way, we can all together decide about the next day and Ben and Dimitri can have a good laugh.
The next day, it is only 65 km to Lampang where Roland, the German cyclist we met in Bangkok, lives. But first there is a big climb ahead, an 8 km slope at 10-12%. It is difficult but we notice we have made some progress since we started. We only stop once. We are far from the famous climb of Bolu in Turkey that took us 4 hours! After the effort comes the reward, a beautiful descent. A bus full of tourists overtakes us and everyone takes pictures of us. Better that it happens in a descent than when we are panting in an uphill. At a junction, we hesitate. Lampang is both indicated straight ahead and on our right, which is right? No one in sight, we take a break to drink and stretch when a 4x4 stops right next to us. An Australian and his Thai wife make sure we are fine. There is a new road hence the contradictory signs. Gene (his name is Eugene but nobody here can pronounce it) has been living here for twenty years with his wife and their son. They live in Mae Tha, a small village about twenty km from Lampang. They seem friendly, it's a shame we are not stopping there. A few kilometres later, we enter the town and find Dimitri.
Again, he is ahead by one soup but we catch up fast. We are wondering how we could lighten up our luggage. Sylvie has managed to convince Ben to eat the 500 grams of dehydrated meals we have been carrying from the beginning; the expiry date is in January anyway! Today, Dimitri gave away his folding seat Ben coveted so much ('No, Ben, we have to get rid of weight, not get more!'). Ben's eyes sparkle mischievously: 'Did you think of your spokes?' Oooops! In Lop Buri, Dimitri bought spare spokes and cleverly slipped them in one of the leg of his seat. 'Noooo, I left them inside!'
We call Roland and we meet him at the railway crossing. He arrives dressed like a true cyclist, yellow jersey and fitted shorts, on his red bicycle. We always look a bit like amateurs in our shorts and t-shirts. One of the advantages of recumbents is that we don't need special equipment (except for the clipless shoes).
Lampang ... 19/11/08 - 23/11/08
Roland is also married to a Thai woman but their situation is somewhat different. She works in Germany to support her family and he goes back there every year for three months. During the few days we spend with Roland, we learn a lot about Thai culture. Of course, we see it through the eyes of a farang (foreigner in Thai) but it opens our eyes. Candid, we have only noticed so far the kindness of Thai people, their smiles and good cuisine. A rather limited perspective... We discover their strange relationship with money; strange to us, Westerners, but quite logical to them of course. For example, even if all Roland's in-laws are working, some will give money to others because they have larger needs. Not necessarily because they have a larger family but just because they buy more things. And everyone thinks it is normal. Many Thai people live beyond their means. The average monthly wage varies between 1,000 to 2,000 bahts, i.e. between 20 and 40 euros. However, most cars that overtake us on the road are big, brand new, pick-ups worth at least one million bahts (about 20,000 euros)! Everyone has the latest phone and at weekends, the most popular hobby seems to be shopping. How do they manage? They live on credit! The policy of the former Prime Minister was to allow unlimited credit to people! Obviously, it keeps the economy going, but if a small grain of sand slips into this well-oiled mechanic as it is currently the case in Europe and the United States...
The Thais love gambling so much that it is prohibited. Illegal casinos are blooming everywhere and, from time to time, the police raid them. Prostitution is frowned upon but if a girl is doing it to help her parents, their neighbours will tend to envy their beautiful pick-up rather than criticise them. Roland tells us that one day his wife told him of a famous monk. Roland asked why this monk was so famous. 'Because he knows the winning numbers for the lottery!' Apparently, he tells stories and people interpret the hidden meaning to guess the lucky numbers. From what we understand, appearance is everything. In supermarkets, milk is sold in various flavours in small packs of 150 ml. Packs of 6 are more expensive than buying six individual bricks. So why do rich people buy packs of six? Because poor people only have enough money to buy one brick of milk at a time. So as not to look poor, the rich will buy the pack of 6 even though it is more expensive... It is the same with cars, a symbol of wealth; people compete to have the biggest and shiniest pick-ups even though they might live in a small house. People we see on bicycles are usually old, dark-skinned and poor. We see a few Thai cyclists but they ride on glittering bicycles and dress like professionals, there is no chance they could be mistaken for some poor old guy. We never see families going shopping on bicycles like we used to in Germany (and even less going on holiday!). People who can't afford cars buy scooters. We often see whole families crammed onto one moped: the father drives, the youngest child is at the front, between his legs, the mother is at the back, the other offsprings in between.
Roland shows us Lampang. It is a small busy town crossed by a river, the Mae Wang. On the banks, magnificent houses have been built, probably by rich merchants. Unfortunately, every year, the streets are flooded and the water rises up to the roofs. Every year, the government contributes to the restoration of those mansions.
Lampang also houses a few temples or wats. The Wat Chedi Sao is a cluster of twenty chedis, sort of white and gold cones. The other temples have a rectangular shape, their roof covered with orange and green tiles and their walls is made of wood and whitewashed stone. Some walls are a bit flashy, fully covered with pieces of mirror. In the evening, Roland takes us to his favorite restaurant where he eats six days out of seven as he likes to say! It is a fish restaurant and during three days, we eat fish in all forms: fried with pineapple and a sweet § sour sauce, steamed with lemon, in a curry sauce... It is a welcome change from fried rice and noodles. Thanks to Roland, we can also find what we need for our bicycles. Dimitri buys some new spokes and Sylvie's derailleur gets a free make over. Dimitri leaves us after one day for Chang Mai and then Pai where he will meet some friends. We stay two more days with Roland, as we prefer to take our time.
On the last day, Roland cycles with us the first 30 km. We cycle on small lanes, much nicer than the main road. Unfortunately there is only one road after that. There are two big climbs but not as big as the one before Lampang. Or perhaps we are getting used to this type of slope: full of zig-zags and steep bends. It is less easy to climb than a straight slope. We have lunch in Lamphun, a quiet town, even more so as it is a Sunday. After having managed to find two cans of ice coffee for dessert, we go and look for the Ping river. Roland said we should cycle along the river until Chiang Mai. It is a small detour but the road is much quieter than the 'highway'. There is a river but we don't seem to be heading in the right direction. Ben approaches a man who is about to enter a beautiful house with a blossoming garden. He is French! We don't really understand what he is doing there but the lady, who is the owner of the house, offers to guide us to the river. It is not easy to find, 8 km away from the city centre. It is a small road lined up with trees of all sorts. There is very little traffic, birds are singing and we pedal amongst banana and papaya trees ... and some very beautiful houses.
Chiang Mai ... 23/11 - 28/11
In Chiang Mai, we head directly for the guesthouse that a cyclist couple recommended. The house is great, all in dark teak wood, the rooms are comfortable, quiet and the lady is very friendly. But once it gets dark, the street unveils another kind of charms... Last time we stayed in the old city. This time, we are a few streets away from the old quarter, next to the night market and also some posh hotels. The first evening, we eat in the street and we are shocked by the number of male foreigners, in their fifties, with a beer belly, alone or with another guy, who stroll in the street. We notice a few girls and some couples, but they are a minority. The next evening, we walk towards Tha Pae gate, the entrance to the old city and we understand. Bars line each side of the street, some girls in skimpy tops and mini skirts showing their legs, sit on high stools. Massage parlours are also plentiful. Every time a foreigner walks past, we can hear the girls cooing: 'Sawadikhââââ, helloooo, massâââge ...'. We feel rather disgusted. We know prostitution is common in Thailand but we are always shocked to see it done so openly. The trend we had noticed three years ago seems to be increasing. A lot of foreigners walk hand in hand in the street with a Thai woman. There are advantages for everyone: the woman gets financial support and she doesn't get beaten as it is the case with a lot of Thai man. You don't need an explanation for the men advantages! One of them is to own a property in Thailand. A foreigner can only own up to 49% of a house or a company, so if someone wants to setup a business, he needs a local partner. All of this seems quite logical but still shocking. And we never see a foreign woman with a Thai boyfriend.
We go for a day to Mae Sai, the border post with Burma, to renew our visa. It is cheaper than doing it in Chiang Mai and we get thirty days instead of ten. A lot of agencies organise the 'visa run'. We had forgotten how uncomfortable it is to travel by bus. We are permanently shaken by bumps and Sylvie starts feeling sick after less than an hour... and the trip lasts for four! If only we could have cycled there. In Mae Sai, we have an hour to cross the border, come back and have lunch. We follow the stream of foreigners, Thais and Burmese across the bridge over the Mekong and we find ourselves in Tachilek. We fill in a few forms, smile to the webcam for the picture and the customs officer says: 'Ok, you can take your passports when you leave'. He assumes we want to do some shopping at the Burmese market. But luckily, we were warned: 'No, it's ok, we would like to go back now'. He sighs, disappointed but nevertheless stamps twice our passports. We have been in and out of Burma in less than a few seconds! We just have the time for a quick soup before getting back in the van.
We meet Pim and Susanna, a Dutch couple who is spending two months in Thailand. Ben suggests we all go for a drink in the evening ... We wanted to leave Chiang Mai the next day to meet again with Dimitri but after two beers we look at each other: 'Let's stay tomorrow! And let's get another beer!' We get up late, at 8am, with a slight hangover. Last year, we would have got up at 11am but now 8am seems late compared to all these mornings when we get up at 6! We work on the blog and meet Pim and Susanna for lunch. Pim has a job he can do from anywhere in the world: web designer, what a good idea! Next, we go to the prison for... a massage. Some female prisoners offer thai massage and foot massage. The money goes to a fund that helps the women when they get out of prison. It is a bit odd to be welcomed by a sign 'Prison product shop' but the women are friendly and we have a good laugh. We end the day in Pim and Susanna's favourite bar owned by a smiling young thai woman. She has a great humour and speaks very good English, it is a shame we are leaving tomorrow. That's one of the advantages of staying a few weeks in the same place like Pim and Susanna do. They have time to meet the locals and learn about the thai culture. We might meet up in January when they come back from the South and we go back to Bangkok.