22 – 30 June, 2013 – Thailand, the land of the smile. The land of a million 7-Eleven/Tesco Lotus supermarkets, smooth sealed roads, mostly well-working internet connections, super friendly people, clean guesthouses and delicious food. This country is so convenient, so comfortable, so comforting and so easy to be loved. Understandably we meet a lot of expats here even in the remotest areas.
We’ve entered Thailand in the northeast, a region called Isan that gets only 1% of all tourist traffic. I think because it doesn’t have the stunning landscapes like in the far north or south or because it is a very rural area with a lot of farmland. And admittedly cycling was a bit boring as there wasn’t much else than lowland rice paddies and eucalyptus trees. Our first night we ended up putting up our tent under the front roof of a small house from a Thai/Dutch couple, a couple we would talk and think about a lot in the coming weeks.
We started cycling in Thailand on a very busy road along the Mekong. The first 50km or so there was a large shoulder and we didn’t mind the traffic too much as it was good going and we made great progress, all we wanted. But after lunch the shoulder disappeared and traffic got mad with many huge trucks racing past us. After about 15km fearing for our lives (even Johan got scared) we decided to leave this road and took a small back road through the countryside, knowing we would have to camp as the next town was too far away. In a small village we met a Thai woman speaking excellent English and inviting us to camp in front of her home. And what a surprise, her husband is Dutch. Johan was already looking forward to a nice evening with a nice chap. When we arrived at their house, the Dutch guy looked quite annoyed that his wife decided to bring us there, however, there was no way back for him anymore. Charming Johan quickly involved Kees in a conversation and within minutes the ice was broken and our involuntary host seemed to be happy to speak some Dutch again. We put up our tent under a roof in front of the house, had coffee with Kees and his wife and talked a bit. As we were really dirty from cycling that day we asked where we could wash ourselves. At first we were supposed to wash next to the house – which would have been OK of course except for the fact that there wasn’t any privacy next to the busy road and the neighbours – but then Kees’ wife told me she cleaned the bathroom for us so we could come into the house to wash. Pleased I went inside and was quite shocked how primitively they lived. Kees had retired a few years ago after having worked all his working life offshore for a Dutch company. He must have made a lot of money and must have lost everything afterwards. This is at least how it looked like. The bathroom, actually the whole house, was still extremely dirty, I think it was the worst place we’ve ever stayed at. A bucket shower in a bathroom of which the door could not be closed anymore and with dirty dishes from the kitchen standing on the floor. It was disgusting. Despite this, we both were still glad to be able to fully undress for washing instead of standing half-dressed in the mud next to the house. And I know we should be very grateful that these people let us stay at their place, nothing we can take for granted and nothing that would easily happen where we come from. And we were grateful as it started to rain heavily that night and wouldn’t stop anymore until noon the next day. But still, this Kees must have screwed up heavily. In our wildest dreams we both couldn’t imagine ending up like this. On top he couldn’t stop complaining about the horrible Thai mentality, his stupid wife – she was beautiful and very nice and not stupid at all – his idiotic in-laws, the laziness of people here in Thailand. All in all he hated everything about Thailand, while he was sitting all day long in his plastic chair in front of the house yelling commands at his wife and 13-year-old daughter, who would by the way sleep on a thin mattress on the ground next to their parent’s bed. It’s been a quite shocking experience for us to be honest and we’ll not forget this for a while.
The next morning we left as early as possible in the pouring rain to let Kees and family continue their miserable lives. We really felt sorry for his wife and daughter as we think they didn’t really have a choice. For the first time we cycled all morning in heavy rain, topped by headwinds and again undulating roads. During the day we met more expats from the UK, Germany and Switzerland, Thai women seem to be very popular with European men ;-)!
Over the coming days there wasn’t much change in landscape, it continued to be quite boring the further we got into central Thailand. We didn’t mind, we’ve had enough dramatic landscapes in the past months and were looking forward to our first real elephant experience.
We cycled to Ta Klang, an elephant village, where for hundreds of years elephants and human beings live together. In the past the elephants were used for logging in the nearby forests. As more and more forests disappeared, logging became unlawful and elephants unemployed. As they need a lot of food – up to 150kg per day – and as they couldn’t just be sent back to the wild, people were looking for other employments for their elephants. They either went street begging (nowadays forbidden by law), learned them tricks to become circus elephants or used them for elephant rides. As you can imagine all these activities are against an elephant’s nature and the Surin project was born. It is a non-profit organization supporting mahouts (elephant caretakers) so they are able to buy enough food for their elephants, free them from doing stupid tricks for tourists and don’t hurt them anymore. As we’ve decided to support the Surin project there will be a dedicated elephant post with a lot of interesting information.
Unfortunately we attended an elephant show in this village as we didn’t know better at that time, but immediately thought when seeing what these creatures were doing that this couldn’t be right. In total we spent 2.5 wonderful days in the village, went for a walk in the forest with the elephants, watched them bathing and eating and learned a lot about them and their habits.
From there we continued our journey southwest to visit an old Khmer temple from the 10th century, almost as beautiful as the better known Angkor temples in Cambodia, but unfortunately based on top of a volcano with the steepest ascents ever, I hardly managed to push up my bike on a sealed road! Thai’s road building engineers must be crazy about taking the shortest route over a mountain, seriously!
During our journey we enjoyed Thai hospitality at its best: one morning we were invited for breakfast by a family preparing for a special celebration. As we just had food we thankfully declined and they gave us a huge bottle of Fanta. Later that day we stopped to drink some water in front of a house and a nice woman came to talk to us and within five minutes we were invited for lunch, this time we happily accepted and enjoyed some local fish, a very hot vegetable curry and rice. Very often people give us water, either a car just stops in the middle of nowhere to hand us each a bottle of cold water. Once we sat in front of a restaurant to eat our lunch we bought some hours before and the waitress came out with a bottle of water, two glasses and ice. Thai people are extremely friendly and often cars stop to take our picture, people greet us and wave at us everywhere and they would ask us tons of questions, mostly in Thai, which we unfortunately don’t understand.
So we continue cycling with a smile on our faces in the land of the smile.
22 June, Thakek (Laos) – Caanod (Thailand): 116km
23 June, Caanod – Kuchinarai: 100km
24 June, Kuchinarai – Roi Et: 80km
25 June, Roi Et – Suwannaphum: 66km
26 June, Suwannaphum – Ta Klang: 75km
27/28 June, restdays in Ta Klang
29 June, Ta Klang – Prakhon Chai: 102km
30 June, Prakhon Chai – Pa Kham: 63km