Monthly Archives: October 2014

Biking out of Bangkok

 

This metal bridge is parallel to an elevated highway and six lane freeway.
This metal bridge in Bangkok is parallel to an elevated highway and six lane freeway.

This morning Eric and I woke up at 6:00 am, loaded our bikes and rode to the train station by about 7:20 for an 8:00 am train. Even though we’d enjoyed our “rest” in Bangkok with two movies, McFlurries, pizza delivered to our hotel room, taxi, tuk tuk, and sky train rides (no bicycles), we were antsy to get out of the city and pedaling once again.

Here’s the scene at the ticket counter:

Me: Two tickets and two bicycles to Nahkon Prathom at 8:00 am, please.
Ticket Seller: No bicycles at 8:00 am.
Me: 9:20 am?
TS: No bicycles at 9:20 am. Bicycles at 13:00

Darn! We could have slept in, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, visited another temple, and used free wi-fi for another 4 hours. Instead, here were were dressed in spandex and laden with kilos of clothes.

Eric suggested we return to our favorite, close-to- the-train-station breakfast joint and regroup.

As I was mopping up the last of my fried eggs with white-bread toast, Eric gingerly offered up his idea of a good plan.

“We could cycle out of Bangkok right now and skip the train altogether. What do you think about that?”

I was imagining dangerous traffic, narrow overpasses, crazy motorcyclist, bridges with no shoulder, getting lost, and stress….lot and lots of stress…

And, I was thinking that this four hours could be the ticket to the “personal space” I’ve been craving because I’m not used to this 24-7 retirement togetherness. I could escape in a book, watch people at a hip coffee shop, or window shop at something besides a bike shop. Instead, I tried to reply as a good, loving, supportive wife.

“Ok. If you want too. Sure. We could try it. But first we need to figure out how to cross the river, avoid the elevated superhighways, and locate some backroads.”

With the encouragement and assistance of our friendly restaurant owner and his assurance the Rama VI bridge would be a great option for crossing the river, we pedaled away…naive, energetic, confident, and (speaking for myself) a little scared.

The ride was everything I’d imagined and more. We carried our bikes up and over three separate overpasses. To picture this imagine portaging a canoe between calm Minnesota lakes in beautiful, cool forests across relatively flat trails with a sleek canoe that fits easily above you and your strong canoe buddy.

Now imagine a bicycle loaded with 50 pounds of “stuff” and sharp pedals that dig into your calf if you step the wrong way and your biking buddy holding his portion of the bike at an awkward angle so you feel like you’re going to fall, and the sun is baking the hole where your brains should be but obviously your brains are not there today and noise from the ten lanes of bumper to bumper traffic and four flights of stairs up and four more down and you do this three times so you basically climbed to the top of the Empire State Building carrying your bicycle and then you repeat it because two people can only carry one bike at a time, so you really climbed to the top of the Chrysler Building as well.

This ride was actually worse than I could possibly have imagined.

This is the end of our 2nd overpass bicycle portage....
This is the end of our 2nd overpass bicycle portage….

We also cycled on overpasses, merged across four lanes of traffic on the AH2 superhighway, rode on five kilometers of dirt roads due to construction, bounced through pot holes, avoided gravel, and breathed lots of air pollution.
Now that I’m safely tucked in bed, with my muscles relaxed from a great Thai foot message, my tummy happy from a chocolate brownie Magnum Bar, and Arctic air, blasting from the AC, I can honestly say that I’m glad we didn’t wait for the train…Who knows if we’d even have gotten on. (see previous post)

But, I also do thank God we’re safe.

TTT – Taking the Train in Thailand

Placing our bikes between tracks 1 and 2 just before two trains arrived.
Placing our bikes between tracks 1 and 2 just before two trains arrived.

“I’m sorry. Too many people. No room for bicycles. Maybe you can take train tomorrow.”

Eric and I were standing between tracks 1 and 2 at the Ratchaburi Train station when the conductor gave us the sorry news.

Behind us was the southbound train on track one from Bangkok heading towards Hua Hin. Passengers were leaning out of the open windows gasping for fresh air and making conversation with Eric and me.

“Where are you from?”
“Where are you going?”

The train was stopped waiting for the northbound train to arrive on track two thus freeing up the single track heading south. Most of the windows are open. The four car train is old. The General Electric locomotive appears to be an early 1970’s model – I made this estimate based upon the mustard yellow paint job so prevalent with the olive green decorating scheme of that same era.

The northbound train chugged into the station…well, not really into the station but up to the track parallel to the station in the middle of some rocks and rusty pipe.
Eric and I had been sucking in our stomachs, trying to keep our packs, bike, and bodies from being squished between the two trains or thrown under the wheels on the northbound train. While several passengers disembarked, we hoisted our heavy mountain-bikes-retro-fitted–to-be touring bikes on one shoulder, slung our panniers over the other and started looking for an open baggage car into which to thrust our bikes.

It was at this point that we realized there was no baggage car. The conductor climbed aboard, peered down the length of the train, hoped back off, and gave us the bad news. The cars were packed with travelers returning home after a long holiday weekend. No room for bicycles.

We would not be riding today’s train, nor the next, nor the next.

To be quite honest, we’d expected this. It didn’t matter that we’d gone to the train station early in the morning to inquire if the train had room for our bikes .

“Bicycles, yes. 90 Baht for bicycle.”  (about $3)

It didn’t matter that we’d bought a ticket.

“50 Baht for two”(yea, I know…one bike cost almost double the  amount for 2 people)

It didn’t matter that the ticket agent had written a seat number on our ticket.

(I knew he made that up on the spot because he wrote #1 and #2 and there were 50 people ahead of us in the waiting area)

It didn’t matter that we’d risked life, limb, and bicycle to wait between the tracks.

The reality is that the trains in Thailand are about as far as you can get from a German highly efficient, organized and on-time railroad. Here, they have no idea how many people will ride, how many cars will be on the train, if it will have a baggage car, or what time the train will actually arrive at the station.

(The untimeliness of the train really concerns me because most of the country has only a single track.) I hope their engineers are good at solving algebra problems like these:

If train A leaves Bangkok at 7:00 , or whatever time the conductor finishes his Pad Thai, traveling south at anywhere between 15 and 70 kilometers per hour, and train B leaves Hua Hin at 7:00, or whenever the karaoke bars close, traveling at the same speeds, what time will they crash?
So why do people ride the trains in Thailand? Here’s what I think:

1. They’re cheap. A ride from Bangkok to Ratchaburi costs about 35 Bhat. That’s about 3 Malaysian Ringitt or about $1.00. (Yes, I mentally convert Bhats to Ringits to Dollars…dumb, huh, but it’s easier than diving by 30 to go directly to dollars)
2. The train stations have super cute paint jobs…kind of “Victorian” for those who like that look.
3. The trains are an option for cycle tourists who care about personal safely and don’t want to ride into or out of Bangkok.
4. Passengers want to try some local food that’s been sitting in the hot, hot sun for God knows how long because the trains don’t follow a schedule.
5. Passengers want to watch tiny, muscular Thai guys lift bulky bicycles laden with 50 pounds of soggy,smelly biking clothes and pass it through the train windows.

6. Someone or some book suggested this would be a good “experience.”

To be honest, we will probably use the trains again just to avoid riding in Bangkok traffic, but we will go with lots of patience,  a sense of adventure and an empty bladder.

 

 

Ayutthaya (Eye-you-tea-ya)

 

Our guide Thannakit, a colleague of Eric's
Our guide Thannakit, a colleague of Eric’s, explaining the layout of Bangkok to us.

We’ve had the good fortune to have had a bicycle tour guide for the past two days. A former work colleague of Eric’s in Malaysian is from Thailand. He happens to be on holiday at the exact time we are here. He is crazy about cycling and knows his Thai history very well. As a matter of fact, I feel so lucky to have had this personal guide that I almost feel we should return to Aytthaya with a rooster statue, it’s purpose I’ll explain later.

Our day started at the train station with plans to catch an 8:00 am train. Unfortunately for us, but fortunately for the Thai citizens, it was one of the king’s birthdays. It seemed that most Bangkok had also decided to take the 8:00 am train and there were no seats. Keeping our chins up and our happy faces on – even though we’d only had about 5 hours of sleep, our guide 3 due to holiday traffic jams at 11:00 pm – with our extra hour to kill we located a cozy little breakfast spot serving up western breakfasts, hot espressos from a high quality German espresso machine, good jazz purring at a smooth, relaxing early morning decibel level, and a sense of humor from the Chinese owner. Ahhhh, the joys of real toast , bacon and Ella Fitzgerald.

The open-window- for-air-conditioning train ride ended up being a perfect time to check another item off my bucket list: Thai lessons. Four giggly, happy high school girls plopped themselves on the vacant seats across from the three of us. Their favorite English words, once they got past their shyness, were “wonderful” accent on the “won”, and “awesome” accent on “awe” and “cool” with both thumbs pointed up to indicate OK or cool.

The girl on the right taught me to count to ten and some simple phrases.
The girl on the right taught me to count to ten in Thai  and some simple phrases.

It was like hearing my teacher voice parroted back to me from the past few years of ESL. Yes, they had the ‘“music” of the language just perfect and yes, we got a lot of laughs, but omg they must have had a clone of me for their teacher. I sound overly enthusiastic and kind of stupid, to be quite honest.

But, I digress…Seeing as these girls had a 10 hour train ride ahead of them and I was trying to break the ice, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to ask them to be my teacher: to learn to count, to say “How are you?” and “I’m fine” and the most important phrase of all……”I’m hungry.” Eric and my sign language for food and wanting to eat hasn’t been working that well, so I figure, if we get right to the point, maybe we’ll get quicker results.

The results of this impromptu lesson were both hilarious and helpful. Because the girls could not agree on the phonetic spellings of many words, and because, to my hearing, they each sounded soooo different, my pronunciation is not too good. But, my goals were accomplished and have already come in handy. I got two train tickets today instead of one.

After the train ride we unloaded our bikes and started riding to many important historical sites around Auyutthuya. (If you think this word is hard to spell, you should try pronouncing it.)

Our tour guide filled us with lots of information about the history of Thailand and I won’t tire your eyes with too many details. Actually, I can’t remember most of it. But here are the things I remember, or as I prefer to say, my version of what I heard.

These temples were used to bury important people. Buddah statues filled with gold were also buried in these temples.
These temples were used to bury important people. Buddah statues filled with gold were also buried in these temples.

Thailand has been a kingdom for a very long time. They’ve had 9 Ramas (kings) including their current Rama 9.
Before the Ramas they had another king who was a really good fighter. (Or it was Rama #5, I’m unclear about this). This good fighter Rama held off Burmese attacks 7 times in a period of 10 years. There are temples built on every spot where he beat the Burmese.
This good-fighter-ruler-leader Rama built schools to teach sword fighting. Students still learn sword fighting but with practice swords. Many of the small children visiting the temple were playing with cute pink and blue swords.

This temples is a monument to some very famous Ramas.
This temples is a monument to some very famous Ramas.

The same Rama from above liked chickens (I call them roosters) when he was a little boy so the Thai people love roosters and have statues of them at many temples.
All the Ramas built/build nice parks that are filled with people enjoying the out-of-doors. In Bangkok, for example, because the traffic is so bad, lots of people leave their homes at 4:30 am, drive to the city parks to jog, cycle, walk, or practice yoga. Then they shower and head to work. If they stay home and opt for more sleep, they get stuck in traffic and don’t get to work until 9 or later.
The Burmese used to burn the Thai temples to find the gold hidden inside the Buddha’s. Therefore, in Auyttuhya – UNESCO World Heritage Site – the foundations of many temples are the only things that still remain. However, the temples that are still standing are really cool and worth seeing.
The newest temple for the good fighter Rama (could he be called the father of Thailand? )boasts of collection of roosters about 20 deep and 200 meters long. Apparently when the Thai people go to pray and their prayer has been answered they return to the temple grounds and place a rooster to show their thanks.

Lots of rooster statues donated in thanks for prayers being answered.
Lots of rooster statues donated in thanks for prayers being answered.

I know we only scratched the surface of Aytthaya but I definitely recommend it for a destination. Riding the train to avoid the chaos and danger of Bangkok to get there made for a nice nap, a good place to read, and a good opportunity to watch people. Having our bicycles for the 30 or more kilometers cycling around the ruins was a perfect way to spend the afternoon.

This is a beautiful temple where all the buddahs are wrapped in a yellow scarf. they change the scarves depending upon one of the three seasons in Thailand - the hot season, the rainy season, and the cooler season...(which is still hot by our standards)
This is a beautiful temple where all the buddahs are wrapped in a yellow scarf. They change the scarves depending upon one of the three seasons in Thailand – the hot season, the rainy season, and the cooler season…(which is still hot by our standards)

And back to the rooster….Our thanks to our guide are so great that, should we return one day to Ayuttuya, we will bring a rooster to show our appreciation.

It’s Raining, It’s Pouring

Waiting out the storm with a nice shelter and a good book.
Waiting out the storm with a nice shelter and a good book.

One reality of cycle touring on the east coast of Thailand in October is rain. Lots of rain. Pinging on the tin roof, pouring out and over the downspouts, flooding the pot holes ,kind of rain. We’ve had some rain almost every day since we started our journey 20 days ago.

Outwitting the rain, or racing the rain, or chasing the rain are all terms I’ve used in the past few days as we decide whether to start riding, keep riding, stop riding or hole up for the next few hours or night.

I’m almost giddy with my “expertise” and outguessing the rain yesterday.

Eric and I had stopped for lunch at a cute little coffee/pizza place in the middle of nowhere. The sun was shining, big puffy white clouds were floating by and dark ominous start clouds were brewing in the south.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Why would we stop for expensive, tourist-priced, soggy-crust pizza and coffee in a French style, air-conditioned, foreign tourist resort when, if we rode a little further, we could have an open air, more “local” experience of chicken green curry or spicy tom yam soup in the company of flies and mosquitoes?

Actually, we were feeling guilty about our made-for-foreigners experience and, even as storm clouds were getting closer, and the wind was picking up, and the owner of the resort was offering us a very “good price” to stay at his resort because he knew a big rain was coming, we took the high moral road, the retired fixed- income reason, the gotta watch our bhats (Thai for dollars) excuse and started pedaling.

A little rain while cycling does not bother us. In fact, it washes off the sweat and road grime, so we usually “embrace” the rain. The lightening and thunder, on the other hand, is kind of scary. Giant flashes of lightening overhead reinforced by booming thunder seem really outright terrifying when we are the tallest thing pedaling along the rows of tinyThai-sized pineapple farms and shrimp ponds.

We were madly pedaling in front of the storm while the lightening and thunder were getting closer, but the temperatures were cool and the tail wind was pushing us along at a fast clip of 27 kilometers per hour. Pedaling, louder thunder, faster pedaling, closer lightening….where is some shelter?

Seeing a national park’s toilet facilities gave us an if-we-can’t-find-something-better option, but we didn’t want to succumb to the first option like we’d done for the French cafe at lunch. Our patience was rewarded as we pedaled around another bend in the deep walls of the scenic national park, and came across the park headquarters.

Bingo! Pedal, race, reach the shelter, and hop off the bikes just before the skies opened and what appeared to be the entire Gulf of Thailand rained down on the shelter’s rooftop. It lasted exactly one hour giving me a great chance to lose myself in a book and Eric to fall into a deep, saw-a-log, wake the flies and mosquitoes type of sleep.

The winds were in our favor this time.

If the Hat Fits

IMG_8280
Notice the hat, not the water bottle spill on my shirt

While riding through rice paddies, coconut palm plantations, pineapple groves, and purple yam farms, I’ve been noticing the farm workers. While Eric and I are dripping with sweat and melting by mid-morning, the workers appear to be dealing with the sweltering temperatures and dripping humidity much better than us.

I’ve been trying to figure out how they do it. They’re dressed in rubber boots, long pants (often Levis but probably knock-offs) gloves, long sleeved shirts and smiles. I’m dressed in knee length biking shorts, a short sleeved shirt, and high-tech super- biker-cool white arm bands made from synthetic fibers with a guaranteed SPF of 50, a biking helmut and Shimano two-ton clip -in bike shoes.

We look almost the same….NOT…but I do notice our biggest difference. Our hats (or head protection as I like to call it). There is a helmut law in effect here. As a matter of fact, every ten kilometers or so while pedaling down the highway, we see a purple highway sign showing a motorcycle helmut and the symbol “100%” I take that to mean Thailand wants (or requires…does purple mean law or suggestion?) everyone to wear a helmut.

Then, exactly 2 seconds later I see a family motorcycle of four – toddler in front, dad driving, sister squished behind dad with mom bringing up the rear – and nobody is wearing helmuts. Instead, mom is often wearing a colorful hat like the one I just bought (see me in exhibit A), dad wearing a mask that looks like a Ku Klux Klan mask except in bold prints rather than the more threatening white, and the kids looking like zombies from the movie of the same name because their faces are painted with “skin whitening cream” or Zinc Oxide, I can’t tell which.

But this brings me back to coping with the sun and hats. I wear Neutrogena 100 SPF sunscreen ( or “sun cream” as the Oxford flash cards for teaching ESL in a country that used to have lots of British influence call it). And the sunscreen is so hot it’s like turning my face into a beef wellington – pastry on the outside, cooked meat on the inside.

I wear a helmut because I’m a good law-abiding American citizen, even though wearing a helmut over here tells everyone I’m a “good law-abiding American” Even the Dutch, the cyclists of the world, don’t often wear helmets. My “obey the law” helmut keeps the heat packed around my brain just like a neoprene wet suit keeps a diver warm. And let’s face it, the helmut is NOT going to save me from an attack of a two-trailered semi-truck going 140 kilometers per hour down highway 4 in Thailand.

But, today I decided to try something new. I’ve had my eye on the colorful “worker hats” for several weeks now, and today I finally found a shop that sold them. I skidded to a stop on a steep downhill with a tail wind. (Cyclists will understand how much I wanted one of these hats…generally we cyclists like to enjoy hills and tailwinds and save our stopping and excuses for uphills and headwinds). Inside the crammed shop, there were about 25 hats of many different colors – probably made from the “sale of the week” fabric.

Regarding shopping, I made a decision about two years ago to limit my selections to anything in purple. It take the stress off of shopping decisions. (Yes, for me, riding a bike uphill in a headwind like we had today, is much easier for me than shopping). Luckily, today in the dark, dingy shop there was a hat that “fit the bill.’ That could be a pun but the bill of the hat really did fit perfectly.

So, the hat does fit and it really does work. It protects from the sun. It’s lets a breeze flow through my sweltering head. Even the tie under my chin to keep the hat from blowing off from the strong headwind feels great.

The only downside to my new hat is that when I wear it the locals think I’m a “local” and stop yelling “hallo.” Thus, I may have to limit the hat’s use to the very mid-day, because I love the “hallo’s even more.