Thailand Bicycle Trip 2009: Part Three
- Siem Reap to Thailand
- Thailand to Ubon Ratchathani
- Ubon Ratchathani: Introductory Tour
- Ubon Ratchathani: Wats
- Ubon Ratchathani: Last Day
Siem Reap to Thailand
Our first day of return travel features lots of kilometers, extra meals, exceptionally convenient weather, and a mild tire disaster; and takes us back into Thailand.
We are up around 5:30, don sunblock, and hit the road. Having formed preferences, I suggest we keep our eyes open for bread or sandwiches, rather than following our usual plan of eating wherever we see something promising, so we don't immediately have breakfast.
We head east out of Siem Reap.
Having seen it the day before, we watch for an earlier turnoff than where we originally came in; we end up making a little detour before finding it, but it proves to be worth it. The road (especially in the early light) has lots of dappled shade from the trees lining it, which we appriceate as a contrast to other areas we've been. It also goes through areas with more buildings, which is more entertaining scenery than rice fields.
We end up having a late breakfast; we stop at the intersection we previously went through going east to Banteay Samre. It is soup with varied meats (one is an odd shape neither of us feels like trying) and noodles; not especially memorable, but filling. After that, I stop at a couple tourist vendors, and get my two souvenirs for the trip: a bamboo-wood spoon and a set of woven coasters. (It takes a moment for me to realize that the plentiful red wood all the shops are selling is teak, but I don't end up buying any of it.) The shops also frequently feature small, wrapped rectangular bamboo parcels; we ask, and find that they are cane sugar candies — we buy a pack, and nibble them at intervals.
We also find some fried items (here tucked under my cargo net), for a post-breakfast snack.
As we ride, we entertain ourselves with some singing: Red Wagon (a 100-bottles-of-beer variant, ended when we run out of breath to both get louder and keep pedaling), the few opening phrases of the Halelujah Chorus that we both remember (I am tempted to plan sheet music into my next trip), bits of other songs, some clapping and VP. We also try to reconstruct some poetry, and get most of Custard the Dragon, but can't come up with a few stanzas.
As well as signs to tell you where you are going, there are signs to tell you what you are going away from — in this case, this is the wrong way for Banteay Srei.
We arrive in Srae Nouy.
We make Srae Nouy a bit before 10:30, and decide to lunch where we did on our way in. The meal this time is soup with meat and rice; not as great as the seasoned meat on rice we had before, but still good. It being still before noon, and impressed by our own progress, we decide to keep going — Srae Nouy is our potential halfway stop between Siem Reap and Anlong Veng (where before we checked for a hotel as a precaution), but it seems too early to stop for the day.
We ride through the hilly village before Anlong Veng, probably Prey Sa Ak.
Our sunny weather ends in a rain shower sitting on the road; we buckle down and ride into it, and it turns out to be surprisingly local as well as apparently stationary — we are out the other side in short order.
We stop for a derailleur check and finish off the sugar candies. (The other side of the marker says: 28Km to Choam.)
We hit Anlong veng, just south of the Cambodia-Thailand border, by 14:30; 120Km from Siem Reap according to roadside markers.
We get a second lunch in Along Veng, again at a previously visited location. We order fried rice, which it seems gets ordered in turn from a restaurant across the street. (The staff at our restaurant are themselves having lunch.) After we eat, we decide to finish off the climb over the border today, rather than have it awaiting us in the morning. I buy a few snacks on the way out of town to use up Riel: commercially packaged slightly sweet breadsticks (good) and fruit-paste-filled breads (not so good). The other side of the sign saying we have come 120Km from Siem Reap says it's a mere 13Km to Choam-SaNgam.
We are approaching the border ridge.
We arrive at the bottom of the climb.
We both walk our bikes up a good portion of the hill. The section we found to be missing before is the same as it was.
The road splits to go around a boulder, which is surrounded by spirit houses.
At the top of the pass, we are both ready for water and a restroom; Micah spots a bathroom sign, so we pull in. The proprietess comes out to greet us, and speaks Thai: Micah is literant and conversant again, excellent for us both but pleasing to him especially. Although it is only 16:30, we opt for an early dinner, partly as a way to pay for the hospitality. It is egg over rice with meat and basil; a traditional dish (Micah explains) which everyone does and has their own variation on. (Here, they add corn). The food is good, and our hostess friendly; she and Micah chat. (She is proud of her modern establishment, in contrast to the rest of Chaom.)
Thence, we turn off the paved road into the cluster of dirt roads through the border crossing; this time, it is uneventful.
The immigration office is concrete construction, but many of the smaller offices — like the visa booth we visited going — are less imposing.
We make our way back into Thailand, to complete our checkpoint crossing.
The red dirt, in combination with my front tire's multi-material construction, leaves it appealingly striped.
As we are starting down the hill, I am slightly behind Micah and to the side, taking pictures (as is my wont), when we collide. We stabilize quickly, byt my front wheel decompresses in a big dramatic hiss; the front valve stem is broken. We guess that my front wheel caught Micah's pedal (and my foot, his kickstand). Luckily, I left my patch kit behind (containing flammable rubber cement) and instead brought a whole spare tube; I swap it in, and we are ready to go again in about ten minutes. (While I'm replacing the tube, a car passes and asks if we need a ride to the next town; it is reassuring both that the offer appeared and that Micah can interpret it.)
The last one before the crash, this may or may not be the picture I am trying to take when we collide. As a single frame, not worth it; but one tire seems a worthwhile trade-off for all the pictures take while riding.
Whatever my wheel hit caught both the valve stem and a couple of the spokes adjacent; as we set off again, I notice that my front wheel has around a centimeter of lateral wobble to it. It seems still to be ridable, but I am more cautious of bumps (and speeding downhill in the dark) than I might be otherwise.
We stop for the night at the foot of the ridge in Thailand, where we rested before tackling the ascent on the way out. The cabin is fairly minimal — the bathroom is separated only by a partition, and features a squat- and flush-by-bucket toilet — but it is sufficient, and when the air conditioner's fan turns off, very quiet.
We shower (no heat), write, and are ready for an early bedtime around 19:30. We are a bit sore from the extra-long ride, but comfortably so.
Thailand Border to Ubon Ratchathani
We are awake the next morning around 5:45, and set out under ominous skies.
Feeling adventurous, we head for Phu Sing as a potentially shorter way to Si Sa Ket; it takes us uphill, and over somewhat pot-holed roads, and then predictably it starts to rain — two good downpours, and lots of drizzling. We hole up under a tree; then in one bus stop, then another — glad that they are present, which has not been the case in Cambodia.
We are damp.
The signs (Micah informs me) say: Phu Sing, right; Choam Sa-Ngam, left.
We rejoin the main road, and after one last time taking shelter — in a hardware store, where they sit us down and bring us water — the weather clears up and is pleasant the rest of the day. We follow signs towards Ubon Ratchathani, deciding that unofficial shortcuts are not serving us as well as they might, and thinking we will just stop when we get tired; Micah says there are likely to be hotels at easy intervals.
Although somewhat subdued from my accident, and more cautious about nearby obstacles (such as Micah), I am back to taking pictures as we ride.
We ask what the brown ones in the center are, resulting in an offer to try some.
It is wet and slightly crunchy, with minimal flavor; I enjoy it, but Micah is not a fan.
At 60Km, Ubon Ratchathani seems tantilizingly close. We realize we have ruined ourselves, to think this, by covering so much distance the day before, but the end of the journey draws us, and momentum propels us.
We make a stop in a small town for iced, flavored drinks; I try chocolate and Thai iced tea. The covered area with the drink stands and tables is mostly populated by secondary students.
At about 17Km from Ubon, we are both feeling a bit sore; Micah is riding no-hands to give them a break, when a semi passes and startles him. He grabs both handlebars and both brakes, and tips up on his front wheel before falling and skidding. The damage is mostly in being surprised and unsettled, but he has skinned his palms a bit; I lend him some socks to pad his handlebars. Although we keep an eye out for a hotel, we don't see anything right away, and then we are too close to Ubon not to finish.
Closing in, we stop at Big C for dinner. We are ready for a break and a meal, and although we are practically back to Micah's, the sun is about to go down; stopping now will allow us to be off the road during dusk, in favor of riding a but after dark where lights will make us visible again.
Big C is clearly a western-like shopping center, but not wholly so. The bathrooms are refreshingly normal — stalls, flushing toilets, sinks with soap dispensers. The overall layout has some areas with aisles, but also different store fronts to the side, and free-standing sections with their own checkouts: a hint of descent from a market. We eat at a pizza restaurant, getting a combo with both standards (pizza, wings, fries) and a Thai variation (baked rice, sort of casserole-like). It is somewhat comforting; Micah reminds me (passing along advice he got) that it's good to take a break from being authentic all the time — both because Thai people eat pizza, too, and to re-invigorate the taste for exploration.
Riding back to Micah's, we follow the ring road around Ubon. He pedals hard: having been champing at the bit now and then during the day, now I have to work to keep up. I comment on it, and Micah says: I want to be home. I agree — ready, anyway, for a stopping place.
Once arrived, we shower, check the internet, and write a bit. I am a bit sore from two days' long rides, and stretch out while I wait for my turn in the shower. I am also rather conscious of being back in civilization: much of the day I have found myself marveling at how paved and wide and smooth the roads were. We turn in around 21:00.
Ubon Ratchathani: Introductory Tour
We start the day slowly; although we're up around sunrise, we putter around for a while: check the internet, process some pictures, run laundry. We get soup for breakfast around the corner, and then set out on Micah's motorcycle for my introductory tour of Ubon.
Micah is staying here while the owners are elsewhere for an extended period.
Power lines are somewhat haphazard.
We visit one of Ubon's parks, which features its emblematic statue.
There is a temple on one side of the park.
We try cane juice: light flavor and not as sweet as expected, but pleasant. Micah says that serving drinks in a bag is a standard, though it is in decline; and that it is remarkably stable in terms of being possible to set down, though I do not test this theory.
The roads vary in density of shops and vehicles; this one is slightly back from the park.
Things heat up quickly in the sun, including Micah's helmet.
Although I have not ridden on a motorcycle before, I quickly become comfortable on the back of one (and take the opportunity to do some mobile photography as well). Experience does not reduce my astonishment, however, at fitting three or more to a motorcycle, or riding side-saddle in a skirt.
For lunch, we meet Micah's friend Jon at a Vietnamese restaurant. It is closed in and with tablecloths, but not to any detrement of food quality (or dishes to be eaten with fingers).
We stop by the school where Micah teaches, and take brief walk around the grounds.
City traffic includes the occasional livestock. Also, although I am comfortable being on the wrong side of the road (helped by Micah being the driver), it still occasionally startles me to see a child in the left front seat, or someone who is clearly not paying attention.
We go to SK, a mall in Ubon, for a cultural tour. It is similar to Big C, but to a much greater degree: the interior is maze-like, a space filled with overlapping stores and levels that interconnect in disorderly ways. We end up also seeing G-Force — on which my employer Imageworks did effects work — in Thai and without subtitles. Jon and Micah enjoy it (and largely keep up with the Thai); even when they are not filling me in, my prior exposure to select shots and trailers allows me to follow along fairly well. (It helps that it's an action-oriented kids' movie.)
The pre-movie clips are also enjoyable from a cultural tourism standpoint. There are standard previews (2012, Avatar), but also things specific to Thailand — the King's anthem, for which we all stand — and even a segment encouraging community feeling.
After the movie we part ways with Jon, and head for another park, where we amble and chat.
As the sun nears setting, we sit and watch people playing Takraw — volleyball meets hackey sack. Except for the serve, play excludes the hands.
It is a frequent move to do a standing back flip to execute an overhead kick, landing on the hands. I am fascinated; Micah analyzes it well, pointing out that Takraw is similar enough to familiar sports to be easily followed, but elements both novel and bogglingly impressive. (See also: somewhat explanatory but hyper-edited, and lots of slow motion and distorted audio.)
Another activity in progress is jazzercize — several groups are going by the time we leave.
For dinner we stop at an open restaurant in an large group of outdoor shops. We have chicken on rice, accompanied by soup; very simple, and also very tasty. For dessert, we pick up mango on sweet sticky rice to take home: also delicious.
The day's tour impresses me with how different Ubon feels from the other cities we've been in — Si Sa Ket and Siem Reap. It feels mature in its urban state, whereas (depending on the area) they feel overgrown and mucky. When I comment on this to Micah, he agrees: Ubon has been a royal city for a long time. It's also a nice place (especially with a tour guide) by other metrics — parks, restaurants, sights to see.
Ubon Ratchathani: Wats
For our second day around Ubon, we are up a little later; six or seven. For breakfast, we go out for something similar to omlettes. They are served with toast (Western, Micah says, but popular in Thailand, and liable to be more buttery), arrive in the pan, and are not folded. I also get a glass of fresh orange juice, which amuses me: it arrives in a tall stem glass, with a long straw protruding. Everything is, or course, quite tasty.
Trucks with signs and loudspeakers are an obnoxious presence in the streets; luckily I am immune to both advertisement and propoganda.
We get ice cream sandwiches for a snack: a plain hot-dog style bun, coconut ice cream (at the time I can't find anything un-dairy-like about it), peanuts, and a dash of sweetened condensed milk.
We visit a number of wats (temples), which are a remarkable contrast to the staid granduer of Angkor; they are overdecorated and gaudy to my eye, though it occurs to me that the ancient temples may well have looked as gilded in their heyday.
One of the temples (with more staid decor) is built over water, ostensibly to keep termites from the sacred texts it houses, which are written on palm leaves.
The wat with the painted interior is a relatively small building.
One of the wats has its wax float for the candle festival in storage; the basic structure is re-used between years.
For lunch we get pad thai. The restaurant is a plain concrete interior, open to the street, and the tables and the tumblers in which they bring us water are attractive brushed steel. The pad thai itself is excellent, and is served with fresh sprouts and lime to sprinkle on as desired.
After lunch, we go back to Micah's. I break down my bike for travel; we make a run to Big C for packing tape and toilet paper, and have bubble tea while we're there. (In Thai, Micah informs me, they are 'eggs'. I am more a fan of them now than when I first tried them several years earlier in the states, but whether it's hotter weather or cocoa instead of tea or the influence of Thai tastes is unclear.)
The parking garage at Big C gets used as selling space, as well as for cars.
Not only the lines, but work on them is less strictly organized.
We are meeting a group for dinner, but in the gap until then we relax at Micah's. We admire the home's owner's crawfish, present in the living room where Micah has a large map of Ubon spread out on the floor; he points out our location, the ring road which we picked up to ride in on, the new Big C (too new to be on the map), and the area to the southwest which flooded recently. I mention Yo-yo Ma, to which Micah responds with some of the tracks from Ma's Silk Road Project — playing with different cultural traditions. Thence to the difference in ideal singing voices in Thailand, especially for women; then Archy and Mehitabel, Wodehouse, Milne, and time for dinner.
We dine with Kris (who came with Micah to pick me up from the airport); and Silk and some of her friends. One of the more novel dishes features a bunch of small portions of different things, to be wrapped together in a leaf and eaten; chicken, shrimp, chile, line, garlic, green onion, a dab of peanut sauce. Another was a Thai omlette (which Silk ordered up as soon as she found out I hadn't had one); like an omlette, but served over rice, and accompanied by lightly tobasco-seasoned ketchup.
A few times during the meal someone unaffilliated with the restaurant comes by; towards the end of the meal, we buy a dessert from one of them. It is fruit on a sweet gelatin; good and additional novelty, if not excellent.
Conversation is a little difficult, despite efforts to be inclusive, both because it inevitably switches to Thai now and then and because of loud live music. (The band is okay to poor, but provides entertainment value in taking requests for pop songs, about which the table giggles.)
Ubon Ratchathani: Last Day
We start my last day in Ubon with breakfast at a market, and have rice porrige. It is similar to grits or cream of wheat, but rice based, and with bits of ginger and chicken — a more savory dish. We also get (essentially) donut-holes; I try and enjoy a variety Micah disdains, which are sugared on the outside and have a garlic filling. After breakfast, we poke around the same and another market.
When dusting above one's head, an umbrella seems prudent.
I try a (Malay) Rose Apple: an interesting shape, if not an exciting flavor.
Running out of obvious things to do, we decide I'll take the bus and meet Micah back at his house. (He double checks with the driver to make sure he's putting me on the right one.)
The busses are converted pickup trucks; the one I take, line 3, is pink. I manage (after a moment of uncertain communication) to press the stop-request for a woman who has a toddler to manage, though the driver has to tell me to get off when we reach the last stop (slightly before the bus-barn, which is a little closer to Micah's).
We feed the fish bread scraps: they are large and splash vigorously.
Many of the mannequins are a model with a disturbingly ecstatic grin.
We stop at a library, where we see books both Thai and English. The library is a single floor — air conditioned, and remarkably full. The books are only broadly organized, marked with colored stripe, and are not sorted by call number. Micah finds a Thai/Lao dictionary, and leafs through pointing out the predictable changes between the two languages. We discover that the fiction section has Thai and English intermixed, and Micah works out that whereas English books are labeled 'Fiction', the Thai feature a 'น' (naw — one of the few characters I have learned to recognize, despite drastic variation between fonts). (The library also has rotary fans mounted from the ceiling on joints which allow them to rotate 360° around a vertical axis while maintaining altitude.) Before leaving, we also run into one of Micah's students.
For lunch, we get chicken and salad and go to Jon and his wife's. The preparation for the salid is efficient and forceful: the woman making it has a large mortar and pestle, and adds ingredients gradually (lime, chile, spices); I am glad to watch the orders before ours as they are prepared. From Jon's, we take the 'team truck' to the airport — the car at Micah's (which belongs to the same family as the house) wouldn't start before I arrived and is yet unrepaired. We grab one last snack at the airport — Chinese flour dumplings with a meat filling — say our goodbyes, and then I am through security.
The return trip goes smoothly. I pick up and re-check my bike and box in Bangkok in plenty of time, and even have time to chat with another bicyclist — Gary (Australian) is picking his bicycle up at the same time I am. He says he does a fair amount of biking in Thailand; he boxes his bike, and is interested to see my packaging.
Malaysia Airlines puts me up in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur. I am unsure how the details of this will work, but various information desks direct me promptly along, and although I end up waiting a longish while both before and during the drive to the hotel, the process is uncomplicated. (A woman at the Visitor Information booth gives me a hotel voucher with a number of carbon copies attached; drivers and hotel workers along the way gradually peel off the copies.) I shut off the water to the toilet to keep it from making noise, set my own and the hotel's alarm clocks, and then sleep soundly.
I again admire Kuala Lumpur airport.
Then I fly from KUL to Taipei (where I surface for a brief moment from internet deprivation); and finally from Tiapei back to LAX. The latter is as long as might be expected, with the typical temporal disorientation of irregular sleep; I have a moment of uncertainty before I realize we are crossing the international date line backwards, and arriving by calendar time before we left.
Back in The States, I collect my baggage, and then wait through customs (easily the longest of any on the whole trip; I feel un-special). I catch the bus back to my apartment — to the C lot, up Sepulveda, along Washington. It is the first time I have taken my bike on the busses in LA, so I am relieved this last leg turns out to be easy as well.
Everything has survived the journey, plus some dirt and stickers, and minus a couple bent spokes.
Monday afternoon and evening — the 19th of October, two weeks to the day since I caught the plane from LA — I unpack, take my bike to the shop to have the wheel re-trued ($25), get dinner, and go to bed early. Tuesday I am up around eight, and am back to work; I think I have adjusted my schedule, but crash and go home early. (My SI joint also becomes painful after my brief morning ride to work, and takes a few days to settle down.)
Then Friday I catch a cold (having survived the potential for strange foreign diseases), and sleep so much of the weekend that, feeling recovered, I find myself waking up at 17:00 on Sunday: I have fared poorly evading jet lag after all. I do get back on schedule, however, and although it gradually evens out to getting up around seven, for the week after I find myself waking up naturally at dawn.
This work by Mark Fickett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.