Incredible. I find tourism an incredible thing. It is beautiful and it is hideous, it is the rose and also the hydra. I see extravagant wealth shielded from poverty that is unimaginable to those in their boat shoes and button-up shirts. I do not judge it. But my God, from the perspective of a local, these are the descendants of tyrants, the old royal families of a cruel, warring race that came and emptied their lands of all it found useful. Now their descendents simply come to ride an elephant, to learn how to cook, to experience a pseudo-culture, quaint and exotic enough to be interesting, but clean, bright, friendly enough to feel comfortable. All wares are expected as well, from the familiar to the pseudo-exotic, clothing, bags, and souvenirs created and designed precisely for these emissaries of a vastly wealthier culture. These are places to take pictures of different nature, to eat, drink, and to shop.
This type of tourism has the peculiar quality of exemplifying the disparity of wealth, so that the local population feels a lack, but then tourism also begins to reduce the disparity by pouring in money to the community, the best dividends going to those who who amuse best. Frequently it is a Westerner who will make money here, as we know what we like better than anyone.
After a week in the middle of nowhere, riding through villages, traversing, steep dirt roads through the mountains, I suddenly drop into Luang Prabang and find myself at an Aussie sports bar cranking classic rock. It stupefies me. I wander about in a cloud of perplexity, unjudging. It is too incredible and complex to begin to pick apart. It is a dream, it is unreal. It is a boon and a bane to the people, for they are changing their culture to make it more marketable, and for this they are financially compensated. A dollar a day is the minimum wage here, and yet every hut has cable television. You see people sitting around a lot as well, I think most people are doing fine, they simply mist farm and tend animals and live in simple houses, which the weather certainly permits!
But one feels guilt! What are people doing here? I feel as if my activities barely justify my being here, for I am not in a capitalist way, except for when I am in places like this! My instinct is flight. Sometimes a darkness seems to drag on my heels as I leave this place of debauchery, gluttony, and truly innocent travel. What better for the world than experiencing other cultures? On the other hand, this is not what many of these Westerners, particularly the older, wealthier folk, are experiencing. Wealth estranges, and all lose by it.
We all move within distinct circles within the greater unitive world. This lends charm, mystery and a frustrating, vertiginous, dazzling complexity to existence, a state perpetual only in its fleeting impernance, inifinite of depth and concentricity. From afar, circles beside, above and below seem to possess something we lack- namely, understanding, belonging. Yet each of us possess, by manifestation, a special secrecy that we are blind to, and it is a responsibility of ours to appreciate this.
Those of us are young, are young, and those of us who are old still die perplexed, eternal in our infancies. Newness, impermanence; Charybdis is a mirror of our wanton world. Every step is uncertain, the sand slips beneath our feet, our minds find almost nothing to latch onto, save the reality of this ephemeral existence, which in itself contains the key, the clue.
It was hot as I set off across the river. I was heading towards Thailand, after a brief and enjoyable stint in Laos. I selected the most direct route to the border of my choosing, knowing that it was probably pretty hilly. A late start found me riding through the afternoon heat along a well-paved, reasonable road, the 48. It followed the river for a few kilometers before it started climbing. There was some intermittent road work and the road kept winding up. I was tired, but I assumed this was due to my two days of indolence, beer, and general gourmandizing. It was a bit of a struggle to find camping, but I did, and I was exhausted. The next day I continued, immediately hitting a muddy, dirty stretch of steep construction work.
I began to realize it was not just me: this terrain was steep! I crept up through the construction. None of the traffic is regulated, by the way: you just slip through and around the backhoes, steamrollers and dump trucks.
I had to push the bike up the last bit of hill, which was extremely difficult. My sandals kept slipping in the mud and I wondered whether I wouldn’t get tangled with the bike. More hills after that. I took a lot of breaks, and gawked at the slope of the road, which seemed to take the least sensible route possible. Surely, not only is it the terrain, composed of bell-shaped hills, nor the lack of funding for the roads, which eliminates any and all bridges, tunnels, spans, but also an extreme negligence in the process of surveying. My suspicion is that they just paved out a pre-existing road that had itself evolved from a path created by shepherds and hunters. It was a bit frustrating.
I finally made it to the top of a 700 meter climb and began an aggressive descent. The curves were dangerous and there was a layer of loose gravel over a lot of the road, which made for a perilous path. I reached the bottom, where there was a town on a river. I stopped at the bridge, beholding before me another 700 meter climb. I had to rest awhile before I could muster the will to continue, but I did. I climbed up a series of steep hills with a sense of determination. My short rest seemed to have refreshed me, but the land was unmerciful. I found myself sitting on a pile of fence posts for almost an hour just staring at another hill.
Never, until the road 48 from Luang Prabang, have I thought, “I will never do this again.” This thought entered my mind this day- if I can avoid it, I will never ride that road on a loaded bicycle. Despite being freshly paved, it is at least as difficult, if not more, than the Pamir highway, even including the Walkan valley, which is steep, unpaved, sandy, full of huge rocks.
Initially almost dejected by the ease of cycling in SE Asia, now I found myself on one of the most challenging routes in the world. I managed to round the corner up another severe incline, only to face a longer, steeper one to the top of the hill. Construction was being finished, piles of sand and gravel closed one lane, patches of dirt and rocks littered the road here and there. I saw a pickup truck at the bottom of the hill, and had they offered I would have accepted a ride, I would have parted with my stubborn principle of the past year to ride as much as possible. They didn’t offer. I began pushing my bike.
I was so tired that pushing was not any easier than riding. Eventually I got back on the bike because it was easier. I crept up the hill in the afternoon heat, observing that while I did not regret this route, it was really beating me up and only a fool aspires to take a second one knowingly. Route 48, give it a try.
A funny thing happened towards the top. I had been riding in a mild headwind since Luang Prabang, but as I approached the peak, it greeted me fiercely. Something peculiar to my nature awakes when I am kicked while I am down. Any sense of being out of options, backed into a corner, ruthlessly disadvantaged, or cheap-shotted and I experience a furious, insane sort of thrill. Literally as this headwind hit my eyes opened wide, popping out of my skull, and a grin that was more of a grimace spread across my face as my body filled with energy. I smashed the rest of the climb.
I suppose this is a function of my will, but it is a strange one- I am told I smile even when I have the misfortune to be involved in physical altercations, which are extremely rare. There is something in the fury of facing the inevitable, confronting the very thing you sought to avoid, that I find sickly, absurdly amusing. At these times life seems like a great joke, the veil is lifted and life is too ridiculous to be anything but an illusion. I become unable to take life seriously and, unintimidated, I find extra strength. Like a little Napoleon, my spirit laughs in the face of the universe, even as it is being destroyed, and this very act renders it immortal.
Or, to put it simply, one could just say that I am terribly stubborn and a little defiant. I share this smile with my mother, whose angry grin was a sign of danger in my youth, for we knew what indignant rejection lay beneath it- for that is what it is in the end, a rebellious stand against the effrontery of life, a reflection of the will to change it, even if we are often times too weak to resist the flow of unfolding.
I made it to the top of the hill, yes. For all of my labors, I travelled 45 kilometers, and although I had a descent ahead of me, I was too weak to ride it, my legs and arms too fatigued to brace my body against the bike as I coasted. So, I camped, and found that there, at the end of the day, my labor ended, I was enjoying myself. I laid down on my tarp for twenty minutes to rest, for it was only 4 in the afternoon, and was only able to rise after the third attempt, as my leg was cramping. Ah well. The worst of it was over, and I had triumphed. Nothing is permanent, after all, my suffering is now only a vague memory, and the border of Thailand was very near.
I awoke a bit stiff, but refreshed, with a long descent to look forward to. It was only 50 kilometers to the border and I had a few pizza shops in mind. I did not have as much descent as I hoped- it was very hilly, as a matter of fact- but the excitement of a new country was upon me. Not 15 kilometers from the border, as I labored up a hill, someone yelled to me from the shade. I expected a local after something or other, but to my surprise it was Spanish backpacker, and we chatted for a while. Good chap, he’d been hitching from Spain for the last ten months, and he had almost finished walking across Laos!
I rode alongside him for a little while, until the first descent presented itself, in which case I was obliged to take my leave, to the chagrin of my new friend, for whom descents are not a reprieve from labor. I got another flat by the time I reached the little border town, which was totally devoid of pizza. I would have enjoyed camping with the Spanish fellow, but the allure of a new country was too irresistible and I continued on.
In no time I was in Thailand. Apparently I got lucky and had selected the only border that one can cycle across in the north, which I was not aware of at the time. I realized a bit late that I had done no research about Thailand. I didn’t know how many baht composed a dollar, so I pulled out a thousand and bought a coffee to experiment. It cost me 40 baht. Hmmm… I set off down the road and was immediately annoyed at a fellow on a scooter who cut into my lane as he rounded it. I glared at him, and he looked at me with a strange grin on his face, which got me to thinking… was I on the wrong side of the road? I rounded the corner and observed that all of the signs were on the left side of the road. A left hand turn lane was situated to the left. My goodness, do they drive on the other side of the road here?
Incredibly doubtful, I pedalled uncertainly right down the middle. I paused, and watched the traffic. Mein Gott! What madness is this? My suspicions seemed to be confirmed, but all of my instincts were rebelling. I cycled nervously for a few kilometers, feeling acutely imperiled. Why had I neglected to do any research? I have become comfortable with the unexpected, it seems. I was knocked down a few pegs, however, by the realization that as a being who endeavored bumptiously to contemplate the universe, I seemed wholly incapable of adapting to driving on the other side of the road. That evening my world was an absolute confusion, I felt as if I had just chased a rabbit in a waistcoat down a hole.
I camped early in a bamboo forest. I had developed a distaste for my tent, as the weather was fine, and elected to bivouac again. Tonight, this was a disaster. Ants of various species swarmed about, mosquitos accosted me, and when a couple of giant moths persisted in dive-bombing me I got up and erected my tent. Before this, as I lay reading, I felt a bit cool, and picked up my sleeping bag. Tiny bits of something showered down upon me, and I hoped it was dirt. I realized quickly that the bag had been sitting on leaves, and what had rained down on me were in fact a few hundred ants who had expeditiously undertaken the construction of a city under my sleeping bag and all other items in contact with the ground. Sheesh.
I continued on come daylight, reminding myself to ride on the left side of the road. Do you know how terrifying it is to descend down a winding road with all of your instincts warning you of inevitable impact with oncoming traffic? Of course, had I obeyed my instincts this is the very danger I would have exposed myself to, but I was terrified. In a matter of hours, however, one becomes accustomed to this mirrored reality, aside from a degree of mental exercise necessary at intersections, which itself dissipates within a week. Now I am quite at ease with this inverse aspect of society, although I must suppress my natural inclination from time to time. It is a revelation that our faith in the rules of the road is nothing more than a superstition, a social construct that we take so explicitly in faith that it becomes a fundamental aspect of the world we live in, an artifice that is believed in to such an extent as to be incorporated into ourselves to the extent of natural law: when we drop things, they fall to the earth; when turning right, one can ignore the red if traffic permits. Immutable law. What else, praytell, do we presume, quite falsely, to be concrete about the world?
The next day, after fixing yet another flat tire, and negotiating a series of steep hills, and fixing another flat tire, and accustoming myself to the wrong side of the road, I discovered a 7-11, the first of about 10,000 that are to be found conveniently place throughout the Kingdom of Thailand. I was thoroughly happy to see these, icons of comfort and familiarity. I encountered an Aussie outside, who had a heap of questions for me, remarking that it was unusual to see foreigners in this part of Thailand. I found out he was a man of independent means who was starting a coffee plantation in the nearby hills. He wanted to offer me a shower, but he lived a good five kilometers up a mountain. We talked a lot about the nature of my travel, and he warned me about mosquitos. I considered the fact that I had slept without a tent for the past three nights, but joked to him that I hadn’t seen any large spiders yet, so I was feeling pretty comfortable about camping. “Well, that’s a pretty big one right there,” he said, pointing behind me.
I turned around to see the biggest spider I have seen in my experience outside of a terrarium. The spread of the thing was a great deal too far beyond the palm of my markedly wide hand. My heart rate increased noticeably. We watched in horror as the thing crawled into the 7-11 and I resolved to pitch my tent every night henceforth.
A brief discussion of mosquitos: I have been warned against malaria over and over again by Western tourists. This is my reply: You can travel fully covered, with a mosquito net, dousing yourself on the hour with some toxic combination of repellants, but this will not keep you from being bitten. They are too small, too numerous, and bite through clothes. What’s more, the idea of cycling in long pants in 100 degree weather, and hiding in my tent for 14 hours at a time, is more odious than the idea of catching malaria. The thing is, as perilous and deadly as malaria is made out to be, somehow millions of locals live and work here, wandering around in nothing but a pair of shorts and some sandals. Incredible, as malaria is so dangerous and deadly, that these people have the temerity, the bravery, or reckless abandon to inhabit these God-forsaken regions. Some of you may be accusing me of willful negligence, and to this I must direct you to the fact that I live outside for weeks at a time, sleep outside, eat outside. I will, with all precautions taken, probably be bitten 30 or 40 times in a day without even noticing. I am writing from Bangkok now, and I have only encountered a noticeable number of mosquitos twice, and in such cases I throw on some rosemary oil and dive inside my tent sooner than normal.
Anyhoo… I had another flat which I noticed as I spoke with this man and fixed it. My situation was becoming a bit pressing, and my failure to have my family bring me a new set of tires was progressing from harmless negligence to extreme and desperate foolishness. I climbed some more- a lot more… an incredible amount more, on roads so steep as to defy belief- and towards the end of the day stopped with another flat. I resolved to swap my tires, the back for the front. The new tube I had installed in the morning was destroyed beyond repair, slashes being worn into the tube by the rough edges of the emergency tire patches I had installed. Excellent. I had to execute this swap in a village, which was terribly annoying as all the locals proved extremely curious. I got it done with only a little daylight. I was almost too weary to ride at all. I made it up one more small hill and escaped the town, camping on the edge of a field.
Just to creep you out, I found this lovely spider bite, which I must have received the night prior:
Aside from this, the road to Chiang Mai was fairly uneventful, aside from being incredibly steep.
I was tired of making such slow progress, and in spite of the tough hills and the extreme heat, I pulled two 130k days to arrive in Chiang Mai, all but crippled. Wildfires had reduced the air quality to the worst in the world, and the air had been filled with smoke almost the whole week, the worst air quality lingering about the city of Chiang Mai. I took a few days’ rest here, having met up with another cycle tourist who happened to be there, and enjoyed my time immensely, Chiang Mai is one of the best places I have visited! Temples everywhere, night markets, pleasant bars and restaurants, a lovely layout, I will most certainly return.
I bonded a lot with Estelle, the cycle tourist I met, and was very loath to part with her company when Bangkok beckoned. While we were in town, we discovered the best cycle touring shop I have ever seen, and I found some EXCELLENT new tires and replaced my grip tape. My friend Adam is meeting me in Bangkok- tonight, in fact- and it was necessary to leave before I was ready. Ah well, sometimes I am in need of the impetus to continue, and I am excited to see Adam! I will chronicle my trip down to Bangkok in the next chapter, that’s all for now!
(I have been having trouble with the WordPress app, which is why these posts are delayed. I have added pictures to my previous post, which I was compelled to publish initially without them.)