Sweat is pooling in my eyes. We’ve been cycling for more than 140km and hunger is fierce. We finished the day in the searing heat of 1pm and now we’re sitting at a tiny table behind a little food stand on wheels and for the thousandth time, I’m wiping the sweat from my face with my sleeves. The sun is a searing iron pressing our skin into leather, but that’s not it. I’m eating my third portion of my new favourite street food and the mix of raw ginger, fresh lemon juice and chilies makes my face sweat like sweaty cheese under the sun. Today I miss the snow.
I’m looking at Ceci who’s looking back at me. Our faces are puckered. And the feeling is so intense we bend in two to bear it. We both know we don’t have any other choice. Somewhere at the foot of the day’s second mountain we ran out of food and water. The hills are so steep that our front wheel legitimately lifts off the pavement, threatening to throw us off our bikes. Zigzagging across the road to break the gradient has become normal practice by now, and so has the pushing and tugging at our handlebars like we’re literally trying to climb up the mountain. I rush ahead with all the energy I can muster, drop my panniers at the top of the hill, cycle down again, load Ceci’s panniers onto my bike and together we die our way up the hill. At the top, as we rearrange our loads, Ceci has the misfortune of asking me: “You don’t have any food left do you?” Well, the answer wasn’t exactly no. Three hundred kilometers ago, at a little hilltop village, I had bought some candy with a colourful package where two faces said: “Ooh Good!” “Ooh Good!” And now, so desperate for any ounce of energy we could get our sweaty hands onto, we discover painfully that what the faces were really saying on the package was “Oh God!” “Oh God!” And so we wrestle against a sourness so sour it pickles our tongues and makes our gums recede a solid three-eighth of an inch! When we resaddle our bikes, we can’t even tell what we’re sweating from anymore. “Christ I hope these things aren’t sugar-free!”, I said, but we didn’t laugh.
The town of Huay Xai, Laos is quite literally a stone’s throw away from Chiang Khong, Thailand across the Mekong river. As we cross the border, Ceci & I feel like we have traveled forward in time at least 30-40 years. We had grown so used to rural Laos, its villages hidden in the mountains, its long stretches of empty road deep in the jungle, its vast rice fields waving quietly in the wind; that it makes the candy bar aisle of the 7-eleven at 9pm under blazing neon lights feel like embracing that an alien race has beamed you into their spaceship to study the effects of excess stimuli on a primitive human. The next few days feel as alienating as the first. Riding on the left side of the road, traffic & traffic-jams, a new language & money, spacious shoulders & pristine flat highways, fast-food & groceries & convenience at every street corner… And the food! Suddenly fish sauce was a delight and exploring menu options was no longer a risky endeavour! Well, as with everything we do as a team, we lived it up in total excess, set our new boundaries and soon enough we were fully immersed in this new chapter of our adventures!
Psst. What? The boy’s dormitory reeks and my sheets are full of bedbugs can I sleep in your bed? The vinyl covered army bed is about 50cm wide. Sure, alright. We’re in a hostel we’ve lovingly dubbed La Carcel in a tourist swarmed town where’s it’s easier to get an American steak & European beer than a Pad Thai or a Squid on a Stick. It’s our first cultural shock of the trip but it’s not coming from the right culture. Irresponsible tourism is a destructive force, and in my mind, it is the single most significant threat to developing countries. Every dollar spent here is a vote cast in favour of that which it is buying. And in Thailand tourist are very much voting (out of ignorance or sheer indifference) for the torture of animals, for multinationals, for bars, for prostitution, for the production of garbage, for the pollution of the air & water, for the selling of culture & natural resources, and so on. Monetary value is the antithesis of authentic value, and to witness its erosion over time is a painful experience. And although we travel by bicycle, and frequently question & review our own role to play in this phenomenon, it is impossible to dissociate ourselves completely from the destructive process, or to wash away the cultural guilt at the propagation of the religion of monetization. I guess we’ve spent so much time in rural Thailand that it hurts to see it overpowered by wave after wave of those who seek a hedonistic escape from life, and transformed to the point of being unrecognizable. Almost like seeing someone you have grown to love, fall into a self-destructive phase of poor choices, bad company, alcohol & drug consumption, sex, consumerism and blind worship of empty ideals. And then watching on powerless as their being taken advantage of.
Never before had our choice to travel by bicycle felt so appropriate, if only that it gives us so much free time during the day to internalize, reflect, and make our peace with the ways of the world.
I think I’ll have some Sushi, some Pad Thai, two Sweet Bean Vapour Buns, a box of chestnuts, a Chicken Brochette, two Japanese Ice Cream Balls, a Salad in a bag, one Mango Sticky Rice, a bag of Chom Pôo (Rose Apple), one of Ngór (Rambutan), and some Coconut Water to wash it down. We arrived in Chiang Mai hungry & tired. The fact that we eat a vast amount of food in a day is not new to anyone. In Chiang Mai, however, things reached a different level entirely. On weekends, you see, the entire old city transforms itself into a giant smorgasbord of sorts, and, well, we sort of lost control for a bit. Everything you can possibly imagine is sold here on a stick and/or in the shape of a ball: icecream balls fish balls meatballs rice balls egg balls squid on stick donuts on stick 2lb fish on stick… We also experienced our first ever Thai Massage in a place that hires only woman Ex-Convicts, with all its weird postures, dynamic gestures and the type of wild rough handling that should only be reserved to stretchy Bugs Bunny figurines or Silly Putty. Anyway, it felt great-ish, although to this day I still wonder if we misread and actually rather accidentally enrolled ourselves in a Muay Thai Boxing crash course. Ouch!
In many ways, we found ourselves to be perfect reflections of what we experienced in Chiang Mai: Sticky Oddballs, who enjoy dynamic suffering, and copious amount of food!
It’s 7am. We’re sitting at a small café in Khao Yai National Park drinking hot cocoa & sharing a slice of chocolate almond cake for breakfast. In the towering trees above a few Gibbons leap fearlessly from branch to branch and we listen to their melancholy song in silent fascination. Getting up early in Khao Yai is comparable rowing on a clear lake at sunrise, breaking the fog, attentive to every rustle of feathers, every cracking twig, every call, song & whistle in the surrounding jungle. During the day we hiked, in the evening we read our books high up in the observation tower and at night we came back to the tiny Thai Tent Village that had engulfed the Park Campground over the weekend. Between the Thai community cooking on their little fires, the macaques trying to snatch themselves a share, the moose-sized deer napping at the foot of trees and the thousands of croaking toad, we could not have asked for a better more culturally rich sleepless night!
We’ve become a little savage over the days weeks & months of our trip. We sleep & eat at odd hours and we don’t socialize very much! Over time we developed our own kind of tourist attractions: a good bathroom, a restaurant serving hearty portions, a place to take in the wind, a well situated fruit stand, a small village to become a local for a night or two or even sometimes just a genuine look of disbelief when seeing us zip by on our bikes. It’s safe to say we have successfully fine-tuned our process in many little ways and the team that left Mexico almost 3 months ago would be very proud of what we have accomplished. The adventures we’ve had soar miles above our wildest expectations and we look forward to the many more to come!
Farewell beautiful Thailand! And from the bottom of our hearts, thank you.
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Now! Time to cycle Malaysia!