Cycling through Indochina – Thailand
On the 25th of March, plump from eating too many Shanghainese dumplings (shaolinbao) and on a new travel story for a UK publication, I joined a cycling group to two-wheel it across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The goal was to pass through, in two intensely humid and ass-busting weeks, the rural villages and backwaters of this much-travelled triumvirate. The French and British may have come and gone, their empires’ legacies now laying in somewhat crumbling ruins scattered across the nations, but rural life has changed very little from the way it was just a hundred years ago. Bamboo-framed houses on seven-foot high stilts squat in rows along dirt roads, their thatched-palm rooves and walls blowing in the hot wind, children, chickens and dogs running amok in the front yards and in the streets. A bamboo ladder or, sometimes, a cement ramp will be the point of entry to get into the house, which often contains a hammock, TV, bed and wardrobe for a family of four. Soap operas – which the Thai call ‘soaperas’ – are popular: the national favourite, ‘Forever Love’, is a heart-wrenching drama about teenage vampires, a sort of Thai version of Twilight, which our group nicknamed ‘Thailight’.
Having never before been to Thailand, I arrived a few days early in Bangkok to get my bearings. Flying in from Hong Kong on Kenyan Airlines (with Fela Kuti’s ‘Coffin for Head of State’ playing over the loudspeaker), it was a relief to be out of Chinese-controlled territories and back into something a little bit more…laid back. I took a boat cruise, partied on Khao San Road, met an amazing 17-year-old beatboxer, crazy-oked Uriah Heap with some Thai hippy dudes at Chatatuk Market and flew around town on tuk-tuks and motorbikes.
I met our 8-strong cycle group two days later when we drove by minibus up towards Khao Yai National Park. Out of the sweltering city and in the jungle, we started cycling east over narrow dirt and paved roads, the hills dotted with frangipani and palm trees, the air sweet with the scent of milky flowers. Brightly painted temples, stray dogs staying cool by lying in the middle of the street, and monks in orange robes passed by, with village children often holding out their hands to us for rapid-transit high-fives. Disaster struck early, however, when the Danish Dermatologist was bit by a crazed dog and the Possible Problem of Rabies first became an issue. The teeth left a half-heart-shaped tear in his left leg, which he weathered quite well. After talk of him being airlifted back to Bangkok, many of us started cycling as fast as possible past any dogs that so much as looked at us. (Except me – the dogs are so awesome).
As a method of international travel, cycling is an interesting way to go. Precisely because you don’t want to run the risk of being thrown off the road, you choose smaller lanes that invariably lend more character and colour to your appreciation of a nation. We passed by tapioca farmers who earn 200 baht per day (less than $7) for 12 hour days lifting, cutting and chopping manioc roots. We snacked in rubber plantations, imported by the imperial powers from South America, where the willowly green trees are tapped for their rubbery sap, their sticky juice collected into small terracotta bowls held to the trunk with wire hangers. The milk – which is latex – is later turned into condoms, erasers, mats, car parts and so on. We ate lunch at local restaurants where kids were playing with steak knives and roosters prancing around strutting their wings. We ate dinner at highway hideouts where local bands played Beatles songs and the singer looked like a Thai Donny Osmond/Justin Bieber mix. Farmers were more than happy to stop and shake hands, whole families eating lunch together on a bamboo veranda to wave, young monks at religious summer school to giggle and run away when you approach their monastery.
Because you’re on the road, you’re in a group, and you do have a destination, you can’t always stop to take a picture, shake a hand or chill out. This teaches you, in a Buddhist way if you can remain calm about it, to learn to appreciate the power of your own photographic and social memory. With the ability to capture everything digitally so easy, the process of actually being present in the moment is somewhat of a lost art. I only really realized this as I was hurrying to catch up to the group, who had decided to race each other to the ‘finish line’ like some kind of sadist Tour de France zombie cyclists crazed by the heat. Rice paddies stretched as far as the eye could see on either side of the road, some of them irrigated from a small river than ran through the left hand side, most of them dry, lending a dusty, almost cowboy feel to the landscape. Banana leaves and palm trees canopied the distance, and a low haze ran out to the horizon. Then, out of nowhere, I saw a young farmer leading his water buffalo to the river to drink. He had a shotgun slung across his shoulders, a barrel so long and so thin it must have been about 6-7 feet. We clocked eyes at the same time, this mischeviousness playing across his face, as I quickly thought to stop and take his picture. Then something in me said No. We are always so quick to bring a lens to our eye that we have lost the meaning of that image for our own selves. I’d rather burn him into my retinas and remember the sun, the humidity, the taste of Thailand on my lips, than subjugate him to the unfeeling eyeball of my Canon.