Thailand, By Land: Part One

The blog block continues! Just as Laos nearly killed my blog, Thailand appears to have done the same. I’ve still got ten days of natural living and ten days of doing the tourist thing in Bangkok to write about, but first, I think it’d be best to go with my bread-and-butter: the 850km ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

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As is so often the case, it began with an end: a sad goodbye to Yongjae and Seungchan, two Korean cyclists who had also done the China thing. I tried to get them to come north with me, but one was headed for India, the other for Australia. You’ll meet them in my Bangkok post.

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On my way out of town, I stopped by the vegetarian buffet to show off my gear to the owner, Cee, who comes from a family of cyclists and foodies. My sort of people! She was so excited to hear about my trip and my three rules that she asked me flat-out, “How can I support you?” Cha-ching! I filled up my salad bowl at the buffet and hit the road – in the meantime, Cee ran back to the office, stuffed some cash in an envelope, and handed it to me.

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Hardly an hour into the ride and already taking hand-outs.

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Getting out of Bangkok’s tangles took a while. Once I finally did, I was content to let go of all that big-city commontion and simply enojy the clouds, breeze, and cool air.

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Lush accomodations on night one. A fancy hotel? Taken in by some rich patrons? No, this was a monk’s quarters! I had arrived in town early and ridden around for at least an hour, asking first at various guesthouses, then at a few temples, and even at the local university, if there was anywhere I could pitch my tent. No luck. As it grew dark and drizzly, I started to curse my own stinginess and considered giving in and dropping $6 on a single room. Fortunately, I found a perfect, covered, dog-free spot inside the third or fourth temple complex where the police officers on night patrol gave me permission set up camp. While I was sitting on a bench eating the street noodles I had loaded into my camping pot, a woman appeared on a motorcycle to deliver dinner to the monk. She went off and came back a few minutes later –

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With six bags of chips and two beverages that the monk had ordered for me! Then the monk gave me a big plate of pineapple. Then he invited me in to shower off, watch National Geographic, drink soy milk, and sleep in the air conditioning.

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Thanks, dude! In the morning made me ginger tea, he fed me porridge and donuts, gave me two vials of herbal medicine, his photograph, his business card, and a Buddha amulet. When bid each other farewell (which, after the Hellos, was about the only thing we were able to say to each other), he also said “I love you.”

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This was all in Ayuttayah, one of Thailand’s ancient capitals. I breezed through, since I plan on bringing my parents there in a few weeks. Check out that Chedi in the back though, with the giant tree growing right out of the top of it, almost as if it had been ariflited. Angkor Wat, eat your heart out!

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See anything interesting peeking out from the middle there?

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Onwards to the tiny town of Lopburi, known partially for its ruins and partially for its monkey infestation. These little guys pretty much own the North end of town, scampering across the streets, hanging out in the alleys, climbing up and down buildings. The locals don’t kill them because of a buddhist prohibition on causing suffering……a prohibition which appears not to animals that we eat, animals and people we affect with our various forms of pollution, and the indigenous peoples harmed by racist policies.

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On the way down from Vientiane, I had been in a bit of a hurry and was also a bit intimidated by the whole new-country thing, so I decided to stick to the main road, which I knew was well-paved and scattered with restaurants. It was equally well populated with cars, supermarkets, and Home Depot clones, often leaving me wondering whether or not the Thai countryside existed at all. Armed with a bit more experience, a few phrases under my belt, and some built-up travel confidence, I decided to spend my second trip finding out.

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Still trying to stretch the cash Cee had given me to the max, I spent my second night at a temple as well, once again getting treated to sodas, chips, and soy milk. The following morning, I woke up with the monks at four, fell back asleep while they did somse chanting, then headed out with them at around six to collect alms.

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Even before the sun had risen, villagers were out waiting for us. They would give a plastic bag full of curry, vegetables, fish, or meat to the head monk, who would hand it over to the dude pushing the cart. Then the villagers would spoon out a bit of rice into each monk’s bowl. At the end, the villagers would back up a bit, kneel down, and receive a short blessing.

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Laos’ Unesco World Heritage city Luang Prabang has become famous for this daily morning alms ritual, but from what I saw the practice was actually nearly dead in Laos. Perhaps it was because I didn’t stay in many temples, which were actually quite hard to find. In Thailand, though, Buddhism appears to be alive and well. Even the smallest villages have wats (temples) where the monks worship and come out for alms daily. Then again, they also eat meat, smoke, watch TV, and play on smart phones, and have even been accused of much more nefarious stuff including sexual picaddilos and money laundering.

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These guys seemed pretty sweet though.

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Collecting alms took us about an hour, after which we returned to the monastery. I packed up my tent and gear while the monks sorted through the food and set it out on the table. In addition to the rice and curries, there were some surprises – like loads of pork, chicken, fish, donuts, and cupcakes. Supposedly the monks’ perspective on this is that as long as they don’t do the killing themselves, they’re not taking on bad karma and thus don’t have anything to worry about. Seems to me that they ought to be concerned about the karma of the villagers, who are either buying meat or killing animals to feed the monks. How compassioniate is it to let someone else accumulate bad karma on your behalf? And how awesome would it be if every family cooked a bunch of wholesome vegetarian food every morning to feed the monks? Then they’d wind up eating it for breakfast!

Then again, monks here don’t necessarily have the purest motives. In villages – especially ethnic minority villages, where many of the villagers aren’t even official Thai citizens – there may often be no secondary school, so boys past the age of twelve or so go to live at a monastery for three or six years. As for the older monks, whom I’ve often seen smoking and sleeping on beds (often forbidden at Buddhist retreats) in addition to eating meat, they probably make a fairly good living, especially if you consider that a public school teacher in Thailand earns less than $300 a month.

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Much above information came courtesy of Tara and Dan, two friends from the farm in Vang Vieng who hosted me for a couple of nights (well, convinced their friends to do so) when I passed through Nakhon Sawon, the pleasant little city they had been living in for the previous two years. Nakhon Sawon is a full-blown city of 100,000 but still isn’t mentioned in any of the guidebooks and doesn’t have a single backpackers’ hostel or place to rent scooters. It’s the kind of place I’d never stop at if I didn’t have friends there, but it actually turned out to be kind of charming – in the center of the city was a beautiful lake surrounded by a park, crossed with bridges and surrounded by paths for runners and cyclists.

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Not so charming: the park’s parking lot gifted me an inch-long metal shard that somehow nestled itself perpendicular into my tire, resulting in my first flat – after a massive 363 days and 14,600 km. Thank you, Schwalve Marathons! Good thing Dan knew where to go for a tune-up.

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While the bicycle took a day off, Dan chauffered me around the city on his trusty scooter, which had a habit of stalling out in the middle of the road, even while cruising along at 40km/h.

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View from the temple on the top of the hill.

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A very unsual Buddha-carrying-umbrella statue. I’ve only seen three of these in Thailand; two of them were at this very temple.

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I left the following morning well-fed, well-rested, and well-repaired, to put the finishing four days and 500km on my year of bicycle vagabondage.

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10 Responses to Thailand, By Land: Part One

  1. Jeff says:

    Finally!!!

    PS – 삼일에 서울으로 가!

  2. Andy Pekema says:

    Glad you’re back.
    Going that long without a flat is incredible!

    • Michael Roy says:

      My friend and I rode in a kind of charity ride for the queen here in Chiang Mai recently. It was a 35 or 40km course on paved roads, but still, at least 25 of the thousand or so readers got flats. Losers!

  3. 승찬 says:

    앞으로 네 여행기 보면서, 영어 공부해야겠다!
    인터넷 사용 할 수 있는 시간이 짧아서, 더 오래는 글을 못 남기겠어.
    짧았지만, 방콕에서 정말레알리얼 즐거운 시간이었고.. 그래서 더 아쉽다!
    언젠가 밍규리도 함께하는 시간이 있기를 희망해.
    나중에 시간나면, 영어 공부하러 다시 올께!

    • Michael Roy says:

      반갑다야 승찬아~~
      나도 엄청 억수로 즐거웠지. 같이 다닐 수 없어서 참 아쉽다.
      내 블로그를 읽으면서 영어를 많이 배워라.
      넌 영어 원어민을 만나면, 그 원어민은 니가 쓰는 이상한 영어를 누구한테 배웠는지 묻겠다.
      나도 니 블로그를 따르고 있을게!

      호주에 위험한, 독이 매우 센 뱀과 거미 많다던데 캠핑할 때 초심해!!

  4. ian chen says:

    you take me to view the monk’s daily live which is difficult for any female to know.

    • Michael Roy says:

      Actually, at one temple I stayed at in Thailand, there was a group of little girls (12ish years old) who were getting chanting lessons from the head monk. They weren’t allowed in the temple halls with the boys, but they did get to spend time with the main monk and learn a little about Buddhism. Interesting…

      • ian chen says:

        you know the notice in LP shows female has to keep distance with monks. I see the monk shown in this post has many tattoo on his body. Isn’t it weird?

        • Michael Roy says:

          Actually, it’s not weird – religious tattoos are common here on older men and women. I guess they believe they keep the bad spirits away? I’ve seen lots of monks and lay people with Buddhist-looking tattoos. And other tattoos too, of course.