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Mr. Hippo and a fellow cyclist
There’s nothing quite like coming into a brand new city, country and culture and being met by someone who is expecting you. All the uncertainties and anxieties that normally accompany arrival into a metropolis become irrelevant, and enjoyment is much quicker to descend upon the weary traveler. So it was that I was greeted by Peter and Goy, a lovely couple who live in the city and offer the fabulous service of hosting touring cyclists. Peter, better known to the locals by his nickname of Mr Hippo, is an Englishman, born and bred, but has lived and been riding in Thailand for over 8 years. His wife Goy is a native of Bangkok, and together they reside in the suburb of Lat Phrao.
I spent the first week of my South East Asian experience resting and relaxing in their home. Mr Hippo took me to the local bike shop where the skilled mechanics showed Lola the time of her life – cleaned, serviced and tuned so she resembled a brand new bicycle. We took a few rides around the city to help me get used to the heat and the traffic – both are rather unnatural for me. The heat is the simpler affair of the two – with a certain amount of time and common sense it can be dealt with and overcome. The traffic is a different beast entirely. The rules of the road here share almost no similarities of those I am accustomed to, and a second of concentration lapse could be disastrous. That said, drivers here know nothing else, and so are incredibly aware and expectant of the various weaving, overtaking, dramatic stopping and triple parking that one might encounter. Staying confident seems to be the key – so far when I have made a decision and cycled boldly across 4 lanes of oncoming traffic the vehicles have maneuvered and slid around me, swallowing me safely into the belly of the exhaust filled monster. Long may it continue in this way.
Watchful giant guard
I took a few days to explore Bangkok on foot, and felt I could not depart without at least visiting the Grand Palace. Serving as the residence for the Thai King from the 18th century onwards, the complex is quite spectacular – almost overwhelmingly so. Each building and monument looks so manicured and well kept that it almost feels fake. Of course it is entirely authentic, and if you can survive the intense heat very enjoyable. It is so vast however that it takes the majority of the day to cover the area, and I admit I found it hard to keep track of which building was used for what. That isn't the point though - I wasn't there to study the history, I was there to appreciate it and learn enough to augment this enjoyment of it's beauty. In that respect the visit was a success, and I filled the afternoon by cruising up and down the river watching the city float by.
Market food is always a success
I spent a weekend walking the streets, alternating between visiting popular places like Lumpini Park and some of the other Wats (temples), and just wandering aimlessly trying to get a grasp on the city. It is the very definition of sprawling, and one can walk for miles and miles without really seeing anything new. But at the same time it has a very vibrant energy – the people are a mix of professionals, tourists, street vendors, beggars…anyone and everyone seems to be here and people watching is a very rewarding pastime.
Lola makes a friend
My main achievement during my time in Bangkok was the acquirement of a Chinese Visa. It was actually much easier to get than I’d heard, but because of the tales of woe I’d read and listened to it was a great relief to see it sitting happily in my passport. I also got my Cambodian visa, and decided to apply for the others Phnom Penh. So it came time to leave, and Mr Hippo graciously offered to escort me out of the city. In fact he would ride to Chachoengsao with me – a good 60km.
Your guess is as good as mine...
We left just after 6.15am in an effort to avoid the worst of the heat and traffic. This has set the tone for the rest of my cycling days, and I now rarely set off any later than 6.30am. The first 20km were relatively busy; increasingly so as the time ticked by. But we broke it up by stopping for a couple of coffees, and by 8am were clear of the main throng. From there it was a breath of fresh air (literally, escaping the smog) and we sped past paddy fields and rural houses leaving the city behind. I felt that sense of adventure begin to take hold again – this was it, I’d made it into the countryside and could finally enjoy riding again! At Chachoengsao I left Peter to look for a hotel for the night, and cycled another smooth 37km into Phanom Sarakam. My senses were in overdrive; everything was new and exciting. Sure dust filled my eyes and lungs, but the sights and sounded were all so different from Australia and all that went before. People on motorbikes would slow down alongside to have a good look; roadside stall vendors would gawp. And how friendly everyone is! No longer the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, it is not an imposition to exchange a greeting, in fact it seems almost obligatory. Young children would pause their games and wave frantically, old men with faces that told odysseys would bow and nod.
What $3 gets you
Not a small town by any means, Phanom Sarakam obviously doesn’t see a lot of tourist traffic being between major ‘points of interest’ for the average visitor. Thus I found the only guesthouse around, and for $3 got myself a grubby but perfectly serviceable room. This was a completely new experience for me – so far my accommodation has been almost entirely either my tent or the home of a kind stranger. Due to the relative cheap cost of guesthouses here, combined with some added difficulties of camping (such as language barriers) I’ve decided to now allow myself the ‘luxury’ of a room for the night. Definitely not every night, but until I become used to the customs associated with wild camping here it’s a good back up option – and in Cambodia of course I’ve been warned of the unexploded landmines from the Khmer Rouge regime which still unfortunately lie around the countryside, so my tent will remain packed away for the duration of that ride.
Despite only covering 100km, I was exhausted from the heat and fell fast asleep by 7.30pm. This was to prove a pattern that I’ve now fallen into quite happily – up by 5, bed never later than 8pm. Luckily I’m not invited to many parties these days, so it’s okay. The next day I covered 140 km to Aranyaprathet – a pancake flat and somewhat exposed day of riding through quite uninhabited landscapes. On another day it might have been a little on the boring side, but I was still on a high from the excitement of getting back on the bike so it flew by without a trace of annoyance. Aranyaprathet is a busy, touristy hub coping with the wants and needs of many travelers coming to and from Cambodia – the border being only 6km east. I found a guesthouse for $5, and spent the evening eating cheap food from the market and discussing Cambodia with some backpackers. It seemed none of us knew very much about it, and to me this is a rather exciting prospect. Everyone who visits goes to Siem Reap, the town which serves Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, and then they go to the capital, Phnom Penh. In between remains largely unvisited, and as for the rest of the country – well, it seems only cyclists get to experience what is on offer there. I dreamt that night of roads unexplored.