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Saturday, December 28, 2019

Hectic and Calm in Vietnam

So, last we left off I was still in Phnom Penh. I took a quiet, easy day for my second and last day in the city, just as planned. I just wandered around on foot, saying no to one tuk-tuk driver after another (they got really pushy at times, especially outside places that were closed). I loved walking through some of the nice green spaces and along the river, beautiful escapes from the traffic. I was disappointed to find out the Royal Palace was closed for lunch time, and wasn't about to stick around and wait. I marveled at the outside, politely told off the pushy tuk-tuk drivers (I mean, they were trying to walk in front of me), and walked the riverfront. There were countless flocks of pidgeons there and feeding them seemed a popular pastime. I checked out the beautiful Wat Phnom. I wandered through the Central Market, and actually bought a $4 cotton shirt saying Cambodia with an elegant elephant, produced from a bag full of the same shirts in every color. I had seen ones in Thailand just like it but saying Thailand. But I like it. I'm wearing it right now. It was a good walk and a fun day.

It was a largely uneventful day following to Neak Loeung, with the most notable part being the ride over the big Tsubasa Bridge at the end and seeing the gorgeous view it offered. My room that night had a sink that looked about to fall out of the wall. To my great surprise, right after I got settled, I got a knock on my door. I was shown to another room with a functional sink, and also an upgrade to AC. I wasn't going to complain. I got dinner at a coffee shop that made me feel at home. I messed up and got seafood in my rice and egg. I learned, and I used my Khmer vegetarian card I had downloaded the next morning for breakfast and had no trouble.

I rode on to Bavet at the border. The road got very bumpy toward the end, and there was also a fair amount of construction going on. It was the roughest I had dealt with in Southeast Asia, though still better than many of the highways I have been on in the US. I had a nice hotel at Bavet Square, about the only option that wasn't a super expensive Casino. It is Chinese run, as are many of the businesses there. I had to park my bike outside with the motorcycles, but at least the security guard locked it the front wheel, so I supplemented with my own lock. The Chinese restaurant I went to that night started playing Country music after I arrived, which I found hilarious. After sundown, Bavet Square was really happening, with Christmas lights, live music, a miniature train for the kids, and all sorts of other things. It was fun to just walk around and feel the energy of it. It was interesting too come morning to see the space that had been so vibrant at night, completely empty, none of the lights on, all the magic gone, just a quiet, peaceful space.

I started my ride toward the border by immediately wiping out... It wasn't my proudest moment. I was trying to cross the highway quickly to get onto the shoulder...except the shoulder there isn't road, it's deep gravel the exact same color as the road. I scraped my knee, tore my bar tape a little, and scratched my front shifter. Nothing but cosmetic damage, but I still felt bad to damage my damn Dura-Ace shifter (don't ask why I have a Dura-Ace bar end shifter, I work at a bike shop and get pressured to buy nice things I don't really need). I quickly got on my feet, embarrassed, but fine, and kept riding. Compared to the crowded, hectic crossing from Thailand to Cambodia, entering Vietnam felt almost anticlimactic with how simple and uncrowded it was. I think I may have paid some sort of small unofficial fee I might not have been supposed to, but it also got me to the front of the line, so I am not complaining. It was quick and easy, and I was soon unceremoniously out of Cambodia and into Vietnam. Now riding into Ho Chi Minh City on the other hand... That was one of the most intense experiences I've had. It is a very densely populated city and the level of traffic is unlike anything I've seen before. There were periods of congestion where I felt like I was in a sea of motorcyclists, as far as I could see ahead and as far behind as I could see in my mirror. And as far as I would stick to the right, I always found them on either side of me, as they will even jump onto the sidewalk to try and get ahead of traffic. I think that was one of the things that truly got to me, how much they just ride on the sidewalk to get around traffic, with nothing done to prevent it save for some physical barriers put up on some sidewalks to deter it. I imagine that because of how slow traffic is usually moving, it is more scary than truly deadly, but any collision is most undesirable, and it feels amazing every moment you're NOT being hit when in such heavy traffic. And don't get me started on the chaos of round-abouts or the hazards of left hand turns. It  was more than hectic enough to make up for the easy border crossing, and I was very glad to finally arrive at my hotel, which I actually walked the last couple blocks to out of fear of making two left hand turns. I spent that evening in a failed attempt to buy useful things from a bike shop, with an ATM that wouldn't give me cash, only finding sleeves that were too pricy and in black (because my current ones are getting worn out), and then not being able to purchase even those because my card wouldn't work, and of course, then after it was too late to get back to the shop, finally finding an ATM I could actually get money out of, all while being stressed as hell about walking in that traffic. ...It was a whole thing. I should note, my trip to a different bike shop at the end of the next day was equally unhelpful, but I decided I will get by.

The hotel at least was quite nice, with the best breakfast I have had (outside of the stupid fancy place Rachael and I had in Chiang Mai). I spent the next day exploring the city, seeing Independence Palace, the outside of the Saigon Notre Dame cathedral (because it is undergoing renovation), the Post Office just across from the cathedral (a converted post office that is now a tourist haven), Jade Emperor Pagoda (which had turtles outside it, and it was delightful), and the War Remnants Museum. The museum was an important place to see, but not a fun one. It was a grim, honest reminder of the atrocities my country committed against the one I am in now. Of all the difficult things I saw there, seeing living victims of Agent Orange was definitely the hardest. I don't know what to say, that will be meaningful, nor whether I should in this blog. But I think it is a place that, as an American especially, if you get the chance, you should go.

I ignored the Christmas Eve partying going on that night (commercialized Christmas is huge here in Southeast Asia), for a quiet evening in the hotel. Christmas day I spent in a stressed effort to figure out how the heck to get out of Ho Chi Minh City, with a number of navigational troubles and changes happening to my original route. It was a big relief to finally get out of the metro area. Arriving in the peaceful town of Long Khanh that evening was probably the best Christmas gift I could ask for after the stresses of Ho Chi Minh City. Traffic was light (by Asian standards), kids were riding bikes down the street cheerfully, crossing streets was easy, there were nice green spaces, everything I could ask for. I went to a nice pizza place for dinner that required some serious Google translate to figure out, but was quite good. And my motel that evening was super clean and nice for a very cheap price. It was a good Christmas, even if a little lonely.

The first 40 miles of the next day were largely flat and easy riding. I passed through a small town that must have a large Christian community because it was full of nativity scenes, a sight I have seen here and there, but nowhere like that one town. There is a small Christian population in this country, less than 10%, but it many ways it feels more vocal than the more dominant Buddhist population. As I rode on a pleasant, low traffic road surrounded by stunningly green rice fields, with the mountains looming ever larger ahead of me, it seemed like I was headed straight for this immensely steep mountain, but then the road turned, and it was actually largely downhill for awhile on a very rough road through the jungle. Then sure enough, there came the inevitable climb, a steep but short rise up a rutted, winding road, to reach a resting spot where I could look below and see the straight stretch of road I had come down, before it began zigging and zagging up to where I was now. From there, things leveled out, with a few downhill stretches, taking me through small, peaceful villages where children waved and shouted hello with contagious enthusiasm. Then I hit the highway, with real traffic, but it was fine, because there was a big shoulder. Then the second, much longer climb of the day started, and right where I needed it most, the shoulder went away. It was the sort of situation that makes up a cyclist's nightmares, a long, steep climb on a two lane road with no shoulder, generally a guard rail that makes it so there isn't even a place to get off out of the way or rest, and heavy traffic that is full of buses and trucks, with lots of desperate vying to pass. A motorcyclist encouraged me with a thumbs up, and I was reminded how much the little things make a difference, even as buses are blaring their horns and blazing past way too close for comfort. At one point, I stopped pedaling, and hugged close to a guard rail as a bus passed me, looking like it was coming right at me, shockingly close and at high speed, to get around another bus in its lane. It was ugly. There was at one point what appeared to be a neat rest stop, with a large Virgin Mary statue, but I was in no mind to stop at the time. At one point, after I found a small space to pull over, a rarity on that stretch, when I got started again, the sweat poured into my eyes so badly I was temporarily blind, and I had the thought, what a dumb reason I am going to die over now... I didn't stop after that until near the top, where there were vendors selling desperately needed drinks. Just a little ways on from there, another motorcyclist would tell me, "Good job!" and it took me only a moment to realize what he meant, as I started descending at last. There was a little more climbing through Bao Loc but I had shoulder and life was good again. I was too tired to see much of town. But I had a good homestay that night, where I met an interesting English-speaking gentleman who was there longterm, while he was in-between living situations with his family, waiting for his house on an organic farm in the jungle to finish being built. That evening I also hit a great, unbelievably cheap vegetarian restaurant, where I thought the price was 50,000 dong, which seemed perfectly fair, when she actually charged just 15,000. It was a great evening after a tough day.

Which brings us to yesterday... Yesterday was one of the biggest roller coasters of my bike touring career. Much of the day was spent going up and down small hills (I had been told it was relatively flat before the big climb to Dalat, but I was glad I looked at the topography and didn't believe it). But there was some truly gorgeous scenery along the way. Things did flatten out right before the big climb. And it turned out it was much better than the one up to Bao Loc. For awhile, I was on a peaceful motorcyclist/byclist only road adjacent to the main highway, and I dared wonder if that would last. Of course, it didn't, and I merged with traffic on the two lane road up the mountain. It didn't always have shoulder, and it was a bit rough, but it was enough to make all the difference. Toward the top, I stopped at the paid entrance to see waterfalls. I parked and locked my bike, and reached into my belt bag to grab my wallet. ...But my wallet wasn't there. Frantic searching ensued, checking over and over as if it might magically reappear if I just kept digging through the same items in a small bag, quickly followed by panic. Trying to calm down, I reasoned that I was near the top of the climb, and the best thing was to get to the hotel, hopefully be able to pay with the little USD I had squirreled away in a pannier, and then see if I could get some sort of taxi to the spot I last remember having it, when I bought some soda from a small grocier before starting the climb. Of course, stressed, I got temporarily lost in the maze of Dalat, but I finally got to the hotel as the sun was getting low. As I awkwardly and worriedly explained my situation, to my amazement, the hotel manager calmly talked me through things and then said he would take me on his motorbike to where I thought I had lost my wallet. After a short time in the hotel room to get my wits about me, I was riding down the mountain in the dark on the back of a motorcycle driven by one of the kindest souls I've ever met. It wasn't a short ride down, and I feared I was wasting his time and generosity. After we got down the mountain, we made a few passes, before we identified where I had taken a photo by the grocery I had stopped at. I got off the motorcycle and walked along the road. And after just a few steps, there, by the light of my phone, I found my wallet, lying in the grass, by the side of the road, right next to where I last remembered using it to pay for soda. I made what were probably some embarrassing noises of excited amazement as I high fived my hero, whose name at that point I didn't even know. I got him dinner and coffee with another guest at the hotel as thanks (though it wasn't nearly enough to make up for what he'd done). It was a wonderfully unexpected end to the day, talking to Ha (the hotel manager who saved me), and Nick, his guest from Singapore he had become friends with in his short stay in Dalat, chatting and getting to know each other, and knowing we wouldn't have if I hadn't lost my damn wallet. It was a day of ups and downs (72 miles, 4900 feet of climbing), one major mistake, and the biggest rescue of my life. It was a reminder, partly to not be stupid and drop your wallet on the side of the road in a foreign country, but also to not lose hope, keep calm, and remember how good people can be.

Today, I walked around the beautiful city of Dalat, and went with Nick to the historic train station, where we took a train to this really incredible temple...and then got stranded because we somehow missed our train ride back, requiring us to get a taxi to get back. It was a fun day, and I will be sad to leave Dalat tomorrow. But there are many, many miles yet to go on this adventure, and I need to up the pace just a little to complete my loop back to Chiang Mai on time. Tomorrow it is onward to the coast. I'm excited to see the Pacific again, for the first time from this side.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Contrasts of Cambodia

My last night in Thailand was a good one. I stayed with a Warmshowers host about 10km from the border, in the little town of Aranyaprathet. She isn't a cyclist, but she sees so many cyclists coming through on their way to or from the border, that she just decided she needed to start taking them in. When I arrived, after being greeted by her rambunctious dogs, she helped me get settled in and provided me with this interesting bean soup, made of multiple kinds of beans, of her creation, then leaving for a little while to run errands. Before dinner, we headed to the nearby store on her scooter (my first ever time on one, and it was not as worrying as I expected), pumping up the low tire so it could get us there, where we each had a beer and shared some roasted watermelon seeds (which I couldn't seem to get the knack of eating). Afterwards we headed back for a really delicious and extensive vegetarian meal, and she scoffed when I said it was the best I'd had in Thailand. There were even banana leaves stuffed with sticky rice and pudding and cookies for dessert. She kept feeding me past the point I was full, which with the way I have lost weight, is probably something I needed. We had good conversations too, about how my state of Nebraska is dead last for tourism and our slogan of "Honestly not for everyone", which gave her great amusement, about how the roads are better in Thailand than the US and in a way, drivers are friendlier, none of which she could believe, about Thai culture, about how I apparently need to get home and have babies, about how Americans with our influence have a responsibility to figure things out, lots of things. It was a good night. I messed up my laundry by unwittingly hanging it on a dirty rack, and she felt way too bad over my mistake, but that was the only small source of stress, and I dealt with it the next day. She earned me that she wouldn't be up in the morning, and left things out to make breakfast. But I ended up getting around slowly, and by the time I headed out the door, her dogs barking at me like crazy, she got up to see me off.

The border was madness. I don't even know where to begin. I didn't have many miles to go that day, but I found it incredibly exhausting. There were huge trucks and cars and ox carts and motorcyclists, lined up for a long ways back, and this was apparently outside peak hours. As a motorcyclist or bicyclist, I learned that I was meant to weave my way through any available space to get to the front. I got in trouble a few times for not going through spaces I felt uncomfortable squeezing through, when the daring motorcyclists saw it as no problem. It was one of the more stressful experiences I have undergone, and I am not looking forward to future border crossings. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing, and I found myself the ignorant American in need of constant direction. Going into Cambodia, my passport cover I had gotten together with Rachael at the night market on our last evening in Chiang Mai became an unfortunate casualty. It was taken to scan my passport and not given back, and when I asked the agent for it, he seemed to have no clue what I was talking about. I got it for 100 baht, and despite the sentimental value (and practical protection too), it just was not something I was going to make a scene about. I still find it sad to have lost it though.

Cambodia came as an immediate culture shock from Thailand, in ways that Thailand from the US just wasn't. Children of 5 or 6 walking barefoot in school clothes along the side of the highway, children of 8 or 10 riding motorcycles, children doing labor and selling me alcohol at the store... Trash everywhere, even at temples. Signs of extensive poverty everywhere I looked. As I was messaging my sister trying to process, she assured me it would get better in town and further from the border. It did in some ways, reaching Sisophon felt much different from the countryside before it, but there is no escaping the reality of the poverty here. There is also no arguing the beauty of the scenery here, the bright green fields partially submerged, the water sparkling in the hot sun. Cambodia is persistently beautiful across all the countryside I have seen across most the width of the country. It contrasts so sharply with the piles of trash and signs of impoverished living in the foreground of these gorgeous landscapes.

Toward the latter half of my second day riding in Cambodia, I got the rare treat of being able to ride with a couple other cyclists. They were Korean, father and daughter, on a bike tour vacation starting from Vientiane about the same time as I started from Chiang Mai, and they, just like me, were headed to Siem Reap. But unlike me, Siem Reap was not just one step on their route, but the end of their journey. Even if we couldn't understand each other very well, and most conversation was a bit of a struggle, it was really fun riding together, and they also kept me at a good pace. He was also nice enough to buy me a soda at one stand and a coconut at another, cut open with a straw, then cracked open to scoop out the innards. I found it sad to part with them once we got to Siem Reap, after getting to experience a little time not being all on my own. But well, that is the nature of solo bike touring.

Siem Reap was incredible. I hesitate to describe it because I can not do it justice. I enjoyed it immensely, from the vegetarian only restaurant I went to, to the beautifully lit up night market with too pushy vendors. It didn't hurt that I managed to get a really fancy boutique hotel on a deal for a lower price than most the chintzy ones I've gotten in small towns. And Angkor? Damn, I've never seen anything to compare. Even the roads there, lined by tall trees, felt magical. ...A little less on the second and third time, because I messed up and didn't get my ticket and had to go back a long ways to the ticket office. But it was an enjoyable ride all the same. I only had the one day (I really should have taken another), and I took it to see Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, and Ta Prohm. There are so many more temples I could have seen, but I at least managed to see many of the major ones. I'm not going to rant to you about the feeling of magnitude being amongst the multitude crossing the rubber bridge to reach Angkor Wat, the incredible detail of the reliefs all around it and the stories they tell, the wonder of the Hindu complex preserved by Buddhists so long, the sickening feeling of seeing all the Buddha heads missing from such a short time ago thanks to Khmer Rouge and other pillagers, the awe of seeing another temple after another... Just go. Of all the places I have ever been that I think everyone must see, it is Angkor. ...Also, if ancient temples don't do it for you, I saw a whole bunch of monkeys on the way to Angkor Thom, including parents with a baby. Every part of the day was incredible.

The next day I rode to the small town of Stoung, with not a whole lot happening on the way or once I got there. I stayed at the only overpriced hotel in town, and probably stressed a little unduly about leaving my bike in the hotel lobby, because as I have learned recently, the hotel staff usually sleeps in the lobby. I ate baked goods for dinner and breakfast because it was too hard to find anything else. That was pretty much it.

I had thought I had brought more USD than I did (that is the de facto currency in Cambodia by the way, 1 dollar equals about 4000 Riel, which is used in a lot of transactions just as change for dollars), and realized I desperately needed an ATM. I tried to hit one in town, but for reasons I don't understand, it rejected my Pin and a bank employee was looming over me while I used it. I got out fast and immediately changed my pin, before getting the heck out of town. About halfway through the day, I stopped and got lunch at an interesting tourist spot at a lake that is apparently a popular stopping point for tour buses, with a restaurant, overpriced imported food, and various tourist goods sold. When I got to my hotel, I had one of the most humbling moments of my life. I thought I had just enough cash, so I could get my hotel, drop off my bike (they gave me ground floor so I could put it in the room, which I appreciated), and then hit an ATM for real. But torn dollars don't spend here, and a couple of my dollars were rejected. I didn't have enough to pay the $9 for my room. I was allowed to go in anyways, and run to the ATM to get the rest of what I owed. It was really kind and I felt a warmth inside that was more than just embarrassment. That evening I went to the Love Cafe, a spot run by an American, who cooked me up a veggie burger and fries, my first real taste of home. It was damn good. ...Though the image of America was made a little too complete by the annoying crazy American patron who showed up on motorcycle playing shitty music, ranting about whether he could say Jesus or needed to say Buddha, and bitching that he spoke American, not English. Yeah...great look for my country.

Most of my impression of the next day was just feeling really damn hot. At one point while I was stopped in a town, a man walked up to me  and gave me a lychee drink. It was kind of him, but it also felt awkward. I had a bad experience accepting a drink from a stranger once that turned to the worst sexual harassment of my life (don't want to talk about it), and while I am generally trusting, there's some concerns taking things from strangers. I was thirsty and hot and didn't want to be rude, so I drank it as he urged me to drink faster. He kept pointing at indeterminate things as I kept my eyes toward him, and part of me wonders if there was meant to be a grift. I ultimately paid him a fair price for the drink, because it felt better than taking it for free, which he took, and I headed on my way. My overpriced small town hotel that night in Skun had a sink whose pipe was on the floor, so all the water that drained from it likewise ended up on the floor, the bathroom smelling terrible, and also an electric water heater with exposed wires. It was pretty bad.

Yesterday I arrived at last in Phnom Penh. It was a gorgeous and restful ride with the wind at my back for once on the way to the city outskirts. It was a stressful as hell ride through increasingly thick traffic once I got there. Finally getting to the hotel and getting off the bike was a considerable relief. It was more of a relief when I talked the receptionist into letting me put my bike inside the hotel with the words, "What is the hotel's responsibility if my bike gets stolen?" It was not a relief when I told him there are stains on my sheets that look a lot like blood, and seeing them he insisted they were something else and I was worrying unduly. ...Yeah, not great.

I checked out the local Specialized store where I got followed uncomfortably by the sales people who, even with language barriers aside, didn't seem to know too much, and suddenly offered 50% off on clothes when I was about to leave. I could use an extra pair of socks, so I said the heck with it, and got them. Then I made my way to the mall, which involved a number of problematic dead ends from Google's routing and took much longer than expected. They had a lot familiar imported food, but all at rather high prices. I wanted vitamins, but they cost 5x as much as in the US. After the hassle of getting there, I sucked it up and got a tuk tuk to get back to the hotel.

And was a lot. I went to S21 Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. I may talk about it here down the line. But not now. I need more time and distance before I can try to write about the attrocities I saw and learned about today. Traveling by bike often involves amazing reminders of the depth of human kindness, but today was a reminder of the depths of human depravity.

Tomorrow, tomorrow is another day.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Thailand Adventures

Well, as I imagined, I have had trouble keeping up with this blog. I am frankly amazed that in years past I was able to blog almost daily while also doing more miles most days. I was touring in the Spring and Summer so I had more daylight, but I doubt that was it. Did I just have more youthful energy to be able to spend my scarce free time on writing about my day? Who knows. But if I don't want this post to simply be about how I don't post, I should probably actually talk about my time here...

From Sukothai I rode on to Phitsanulok, almost entirely on highway, and without a whole lot to see. But I did come upon a rice field filled with cranes, and that was definitely the highlight of the ride. The afternoon and evening were interesting enough though to make up for the day's ride. I survived traffic in Phitsanulok (with some back tracking, mad dashes across intersections and the like) to arrive early at the hostel run by my Warmshowers host. No one was there when I arrived, so I sent him a message and just hung out and waited for awhile. The guy was fun, a British ex-pat who had nothing good to say about England (weather is apparently shit and everyone whines too much), and so now he lives in Thailand, speaking fluent Thai and running a hostel with his Thai wife. He showed me around the place, and on the rooftop hang out and laundry space, he introduced me to a very interesting older woman who was staying long-term in exchange for chores. She was eccentric, extremely talkative, and claimed to have two PhDs and to have lived and worked in many different countries around the world. I felt it might well be all true, and much of it might not be, and I had no way to know. My host took me with him to a sauna he frequents every day at a local temple. Then he went back, he directed me how to get to another temple that is apparently the most visited by Thai people outside Bangkok. That evening, he, the long term guest, an Australian guest, a German guest, and I all went to dinner at a restaurant, where for just 70 baht apiece we shared a considerable communal meal of numerous different dishes, mostly vegetarian. I wish I knew how to order in Thai the way he could... It was a good time. The lady talked about a great many things, from tiger farms in Laos to the unhealthy eating habits in much of the world. The German was largely quiet. The Australian hitch-hiker inquired our host about many things, mostly where he could stay for free (mosques and temples and such). And the ignorant American, me, found himself caught out feeling foolish only a few times here and there (once when I failed to recognize that the mosque across the street was a mosque). Afterwards we came back and tried some bitter herbal whiskey of our host's concoction and chatted some more. The others went out to the bar then, but I headed to bed so I could get out early for the long day to follow.

Rising early in a six person dorm and trying not to wake anyone is not the easiest trick, but I think I managed. The long-term guest was extremely kind enough to make me a big breakfast while I got ready, having also shared pasta with me the night before, saying she only did it because I was a cyclist like her father was (who apparently lived to 107). Some Dutch cyclists had arrived after I had gone to bed, having taken the train up from Bangkok, and I spent some time looking over their bikes. I would have loved to meet them, but I had miles to make. My host had offered me an alternate route through the mountains to the East, saying Ayutthaya was just like Sukothai, and there was little to see between here and there. I deliberated a lot on what to do, but ultimately decided to stick to the original route. I rode 88 miles that day, and it was largely boring. The highlight was a brief conversation with a monk outside a restroom. But when I got to Nakhon Sawan at the end of the day, I was able to ride up a steep hill (doubling the climbing I did on an otherwise very flat ride) and see a really cool temple with a great view of the town. There was an observation tower that I wanted to go in to, but when I tried, a lady spent a lot of time on her phone figuring out how to get Google to translate "Under maintenance". The ride down the hill was a blast. That night at my hotel though... Let's just say it wasn't the best place I have stayed, and leave it at that.

The ride to Sing Buri the next day I was able to get off the highway onto a side road along a river for awhile and that was a welcome reprieve. Other than that, it was a largely uneventful day. I was finally able to do laundry in the evening as they had coin-op washers, and a really nice balcony in the room with a clothes line to let them dry. I actually did my laundry in my jacket and rain pants (both items I have realized I have no reason to have this trip) so I could launder all my shirts and shorts.

I made a half day ride to Ayutthaya. My hotel there was a little pricy, and a little behind the times, but nice and clean. It involves walking down a very narrow passageway to get to the rooms, one my bike and I barely fit in side by side. The lady showing me to my room (I think the owner), practically scoffed at me when I asked about bringing my bike into the room, and told me I could lock it up outside. I'm not a huge fan of that, but in this case, it seemed to be in a pretty safe place. So I locked up, took just a little down time in the room, and headed out to see Ayutthaya. It's true that it may have very similar architecture to Sukothai, but it was still incredible nonetheless. I saw some amazing temples, a beautiful public park, people riding elephants (which while an interesting spectacle, is sad and majorly messed up), and lots of bird life. It was a fun several hours walking around, even if the town was not particularly walkable thanks to a moat and several other barriers. I got offered a ride by a tuk-tuk driver who insisted the walk to one temple was impossible from there. I had fun proving that wrong, if only to myself, and even if it wasn't the funnest walk. In the evening, after a long day walking around as many temples as I could, I was able to get a good vegetarian meal at a restaurant that actually had a specific vegetarian menu. It was a damn good day.

That vegetarian-catering place was not open in the morning, and neither was the restaurant attached to the hotel, so I ultimately gave up on getting a good breakfast. It was a short ride to Nakhon Nayok, but I made it longer trying some complicated routes along side roads. It's always nice to get off the highway, take rural roads where you see things you otherwise wouldn't, slices of village life, wildlife, gorgeous fields, all of that. I saw so many cranes and took a lot of pictures. I saw several monitor lizards, and failed to get any pictures. I saw interesting farm and fishing equipment. I saw a man holding a dead bird in one hand while driving his motorcycle with another. I went up a steep bridge where I got such a wide-eyed look from an old woman with a single speed bicycle who had to walk up it. I rode roads that seemed more like a bike path in the US and yet somehow had two way vehicular traffic. The last part of the day on highway was so dull compared to the early half navigating side roads. I got to the hotel early, and had to be checked in by the cleaning lady, with a bit of confusion to making the process happen, a good part of it my own damn fault when I somehow handed her the wrong bill. I felt really embarrassed and dumb to make that mistake after this much time using Baht. But hey, mistakes happen. That evening I had an interesting time getting vegetarian food. I went to one place close by and after a lot of hulabaloo got told there was nothing for me by the teenage boy who was the only one who spoke English. Then I walked quite a bit further to a bar. The first guy got me a large bottle of beer, and then I asked for food. He had to get a second person to ascertain that I indeed wanted food with help from Google translate. Then a lady showed up who spoke some English, and I showed her on my phone (because apparently I can't pronounce it worth a damn) that I'm mangsawirat, vegetarian. And so she asks, oh, so then you want fried vegetables? And rice? To which I decided, sure, yeah, that sounded great. And then she added, and french fries? We could do french fries. So I drank beer and ate fried vegetables with rice and french fries, and I was pretty damn happy.

This evening I actually made a damn 40 minute round trip walk along the highway, at dusk on the return, just to get to another place here in this little town where they were willing to serve me plain rice and fried vegetables (not that I wouldn't love something else, but that's the only thing most people seem to understand vegetarians want to eat). It's not always easy to be vegetarian... Aside from that, I have little to report about today. I rode highway. I saw some tree farms. I saw some temples. After getting settled in to the hotel I tried to walk to some sort of garden, but I incurred the ire of some dogs and the road turned to dirt and undergrowth and I wasn't entirely sure it wasn't someone's property, so I gave up. I got some taro flavored Bangkok icecream from the store, and polished off a can of Pringles and some soda to calorically supplement my dinner while writing this blog. And that rather unceremoniously brings you up to date with the present.

It's been a really fun time in Thailand these last couple weeks. It's hard to believe that time is drawing to a close. After tomorrow, I'll be headed into Cambodia. A new country and a new adventure are just around the corner.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Hard Days, Easy Days

So, my second day in was a struggle. It was quite honestly one of the toughest days I have ever had in the saddle. It ended up being 68 miles with 3800 feet of climbing, far from one of my hardest days on paper, but by the time I was doing the last mountain stretch of three, I was wrecked. I think I was on the verge of heat exhaustion, needing to eat but food made me want to puke, not enough saliva to properly digest, feeling my heart in my chest, light-headed, generally feeling unable to cool down even pulling over time and again into the shade. I don't know that I have ever felt quite so much like my body was failing to be and do what it needed to. I made some major mistakes, not leaving Wichai's as soon as I should have to capitalize on the relatively cool morning, not making myself eat enough before it felt like a struggle, underestimating the way the 80% humidity affected the 90° heat, not knowing quite how much I would be climbing... Having experience doesn't always mean you won't make dumb mistakes, sometimes I think it makes it more likely because you get too confident you know what you're doing. I got through it and learned some lessons, and that's what counts.

Struggling and feeling awful dominated a lot of the day, but it still had some highlights. I took a wrong turn that added some distance, but also took me down a quiet road that was a welcome break from the highway. Lampang was a fun little town, though I only saw a bit of it. I was amazed at how polite and safe drivers were in passing me on a winding highway up a mountain with no shoulder, way better than I've ever gotten in the US. Someone wanted to take a picture with me at a small temple at the top of a mountain where I was resting. I had an incredible ride down one of the mountains, having to slow down for a bus, and having a scary moment with some construction potholes at the end. And I got one channel in my room and spent some fun time watching infomercials at the end of the day. It was a good day really for how miserable I was for a lot of it.

The next day was easy riding. There was another mountainous stretch, but not nearly as steep and I didn't have far to go. I detoured off the highway onto a side road, riding up and down hills through jungle with hardly a car to be seen. I made a spur of the moment detour to go see a waterfall. ...Which I did not in fact see because it turns out it is accessed by boat and the boat doesn't run in the dry season because the waterfall doesn't exist during the dry season. But I only went to the visitor center to learn this after making the trek up (with a rather murderous final climb), and it turned out it was well worth it for the view, even without the waterfall. Going to the visitor center ended up quite worth it too, because I was apparently quite the spectacle and the teenage boy who was the only one who spoke English had a bunch of pictures taken with me for his "research project". I didn't begin to understand what was going on, but I smiled for the camera all the same. He also told me to come back and see the waterfall in August, which made me smile too. I got a slightly expensive (for Thai prices) hotel room in Uttaradit, and walked to a laundromat to do some much needed laundry, then finished the night with an overpriced take on "American" food.

The next day was even easier riding, flat and beautiful, lots of rice fields full of birds, tree covered mountains in the background. I got to see Si Satchanalai (a suggestion from Wichai I am grateful for) on my way to Sukothai. There were temples right off the road with no one there and I was able to walk their grounds in peaceful solitude. The last twenty miles or so of the day were on an almost entirely straight stretch of road, that while beautiful, became a bit monotonous. Thankfully, I was flying down it, going 14 to 15 the whole time. It's interesting not always being the slowest traffic on the road. There were a couple trucks filled with workers that I passed. One had a lady who smiled, gave me a thumbs up, and said, "Go, go fast!" as I was passing at about 20 to get around them before traffic came from the other way. I took a rest day today in historic Sukothai. I ended up paying more than I wanted again to get a private room, because I just couldn't bring myself to do a shared room with my bike knowing that I was going to leave it to explore the city today. But keeping the bike safe comes first.

As for Sukothai today, well, it's kind of an irony that in an area full of bike rentals and structured around biking through the grounds, I chose to walk around. But I think it's important to have time off the bike, especially since I have a nasty saddle sore right now, different and worse than any I've had before (and so early...). The distances weren't bad to do by foot either, and it was both a relaxing and sight-filled day. I ate a sorry breakfast of toast, crackers, and strange jam filled cookies at the hotel, but a good and very heavy lunch and dinner in effort to put some weight back on. I walked amongst ancient temples on meticulously maintained grounds while spending far too much time staring at them through my smartphone to capture pictures of them like trite trophies of travel, while watching people from all over the world do the same. I saw herds of school children on bikes zipping around the park and having a grand time. And when I was all done, I came back to my hotel room and watched some mindless television, even more mindless because I couldn't understand a word of it.

It was good. It was what I needed. And I'm ready for tomorrow and getting back in the saddle (hopefully with less soreness).

Saturday, November 30, 2019

On the Other Side of the World

Well, it's been awhile. I mean, I never even finished blogging my previous tour, and here I am on another one, on the other side of the world. It's hard to pick this back up again after leaving it abandoned, like a book or a game that circumstances kept you from finishing and now when you try, you don't know where you were or how to proceed. Needless to say, Joel and I finished our last tour, made it to the coast, shipped our bikes home (boxed them ourselves and my 920 made it home safe this time!). I kept on intending to make an entry in New Orleans, then in Mobile down the line, then at the the end in Florida, then once I got home, and I just...well, I didn't. That's the important thing: I didn't do it. could try to run through it all, but like I mentioned earlier, I'm literally on the other side of the world from where I was then, and it just doesn't feel like the right use of my energy. Maybe I will at some point for the sake of posterity, but right now, let's move onto the current chapter and what I'm doing right now (you know, the new shiny thing!).

I'm in Thailand! Rachael and I got married, and we just had our honeymoon in Chiang Mai. We got a super posh hotel, we wandered the Old City, we went to an elephant sanctuary and bathed a baby elephant in mud, we climbed the steps of Doi Suthep, we took a river boat ride, we shopped for a passport book for me at the night bazaar... We had a great time. ...And then she left me, here, in Thailand, went home without me, abandoned me with nothing, but my new bike I built, and my panniers, and all my touring gear, and... So yeah, I'm that guy who goes on a honeymoon and then plans to stay and bike around for two months while my wife goes back home. Judge me how you will.I have a very understanding wife, and I am super lucky and grateful to have her.

So yeah, Rachael left on her flight back to the States this morning, and I left Chiang Mai by bike. It was a little hectic at first. Traffic here is much different from the US. Streetlights are rare, crosswalks exist but seem to serve no function, there are at least as many motorcycles and scooters as cars and they move with their own rules, traffic will sometimes go one way on a one way and this is normal, pedestrians will often be walking the side of the street because there is no sidewalk, traffic just flows through any open space. I had it described as crazy but you get used to it, and those seemed dichotomous to me, one or the other, but I think that sure enough, I am slowly getting used to it, but it's still crazy. 

I had an inauspicious start by missing my first turn, consequently making a wrong one, then briefly riding on the right (which is wrong, because here they drive on the left). But I got sorted and rode 106, the rubber tree road, which to its namesake has huge rubber trees bordering it. The road has a shoulder and that made me a lot more comfortable, even as I adjusted to having scooters and motorcyclists using it as well. I eventually got onto the Super Highway, though making the turn to get into it was not an easy one. While the traffic on it is very heavy, it has a really good shoulder (again, still watching out for the motorcyclists that use it too) and it wasn't bad riding. Going up the mountain in the 90 degree heat had me suffering more than a little because I am not in shape yet. I had to stop for a long rest break at the rest area at the top before cruising down hill and riding easy most the way to my destination tonight.

I am staying with a Warmshowers host tonight. He's an incredible guy, extremely generous and lucky for me his English is very good. He biked from here to Singapore, and his dream is to ride Australia, but right now he's taking care of his sick wife.  After I got my shower and rested, he showed me around his little town by bike, and we hit up the local market to get food. We brought back several bags full on our handlebars, which he used to make a really good, and vegetarian friendly, meal for the night.

I burned my wrists and my neck, I am feeling the fact that I neglected chamois butter, I am tired from what was a fairly short 50some mile ride, I miss my wife dearly, and I couldn't be happier I am here.

I will do my best to update this blog. But no promises.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Still in Texas...

It's been almost two weeks, and we're still in Texas. I knew it would take a long time to get across. I did not know how varied, how interesting, how beautiful, the state would prove to be. From the mountains, to the desert, to the lush rolling hills, to the area now where it begins to flatten out, Texas has had all kinds of terrain and scenery.

Our descent from McDonald Observatory in the early hours of the morning was bitterly cold. It was the first time I needed the Bar Mitts and thermal balaclava I'd been packing all trip for the cold weather. It was also the last. Though upon buying food at the end of the day in Alpine, I found myself with no place to put the Bar Mitts away, and then got stuck having them on for days to come. We had a short day and spent time exploring the historic town of Ft Davis before making our way on to Alpine. Our host there had a sick son so she put us up in the apartment attached to her home she normally uses for vacation rental. It was really nice, a welcome place to relax. And it allowed us time to explore Alpine, Joel hitting up a bike shop, while I checked out the Big Bend Museum (making me wish we could have gotten down to the National Park all the more), and we both did our own grocery shopping. It was probably the shortest day of miles we've had, coupled with it being mostly downhill, so we had a nice amount of free time.

The next day we did a longer distance to Sanderson, biking through desolate country with not a whole lot to see. We camped at an RV park that was cheap and allowed tent camoing, but also was full of thorny plants and right next to a train track. The wind was terrible in the evening, and I was glad that my tent managed to hold up. I used the extra guylines to support it for the first time. Thankfully it died down as the night progressed, and I managed to at least somewhat sleep through the night.

The next day we headed on to Langtry. It was another 60 miles of mostly empty desert. At the end of the run, we came upon a really impressively nice visitor center and museum for such a small town. As soon as the lady at the desk saw us in our gear, she gave us the rundown she gives all the cyclists. She told us about the Judge Roy Bean Museum, offered us use of the wifi, electrical outlets, and water, and told us we could camp at the community center right across the way. Funny...supposedly this whole stretch was devoid of any such services according to ACA, Sanderson where we had water and electric the night before, and Langtry where we had it now.... As a secondary note, she then mentioned that there was also a trailer that a man had been allowing cyclists to stay in for years, and had told her to direct them to when they came through. But apparently she hadn't had contact with him for awhile, and the door to the trailer had just been left open for some time, with him not around. We decided we had time and might as well check it out. I had read about his trailer on a number of blogs, and knew people had been staying there for years. The door was wide open just like she said, but there were jugs of water strewn about, a note...left in the freezer, talking about people being able to stay and water damage in the bedroom, and...a lot of mouse poop. Camping would have been the sensible choice. I'm not always sensible. I opted to use my emergency blanket around me and the cleanest bed space I found (not wanting to get my sleeping bag gross...yeah, I know), and a garbage bag over the pillows. I'd never actually tried an emergency blanket, and I was curious how well it would work. ...It did trap my heat in as described, really well, until I sweat, and the sweat ultimately made me cold late in the night, and I spent the early morning hours curled up in a ball, waiting for dawn. I ultimately got up and got around well before the sunlight actually came, Joel getting up not long after me. It was not a great night, and it's fair to say it was in part my fault for opting for the trailer. But I've had colder nights, and I've had grosser nights, and we got through this one just the same.

I got us a hotel in Del Rio. I needed one even if Joel didn't. It was nice. I had WiFi and got a chance to video chat with Rachael, electricity to charge everything, a warm, clean bed, and even breakfast in the morning. We stocked up on food at the Walmart. And we both got fast food for the night. I got pizza again, begrudgingly, after I realized nowhere else was going to give me a veggie friendly option there in Southwest Texas. Cattle country is not now and has never been my friend on that front.

The next day we entered Hill Country in earnest. It was gorgeous, but definitely some difficult climbing. Still we made it through the day in good time. We were facing a headwind toward the end, and for the first time I found myself truly struggling to chase after Joel. I asked him to slow down, as we had no need to hurry, especially into a headwind. He pushed back at me a little and said I could go whatever pace I wanted and meet him there. Ultimately it led to a discussion at the day's end where he felt that he had been struggling all trip until then and had been holding his tongue and pushing through, and it felt unfair that I should complain the first time I had to struggle to keep pace with him. He wasn't wrong. I wasn't wrong either that after all this time I knew exactly what pace I could do and still get up the next day and do it again day after day. It was just something we had to talk out. He'd kept more in and toughed more out than I realized (in my head just thinking it's always  tough early on), and I had thought I'd listened better than I had. It's also inherently hard to follow someone, especially with different gearing, as you'll always be playing slow down and speed up, and I had underappreciated that effort, being unaccustomed to it. We had a good talk, and I realized a number of my failings. We camped properly this time, at my favorite site of the trip so far. There was a wonderful camp store nearby to get provisions, our campsite was right on the edge of this beautiful river, the ground was soft and grassy, there was a clean bathroom, there was even wifi! I couldn't have possibly asked for better.

The next day was hard. Really hard. We ended up doing another vertical mile worth of climbing, more than even that day on Apache Trail to Roosevelt Lake. There were several extremely steep hills (we hit 40mph going down one!), divided by one rolling hill after another. We rode one stretch that was a popular motorcycle route, where we were passed by one motorcyclist after another, many offering encouragement, and a bunch of trucks with huge cattle guards (that we joked were so they could hit cyclists and not notice). There was a sign on that road noting how many motorcyclists had apparently been killed on it, but no notes of cyclists killed (so we were safe, right? Hah). Through all the endless hills, we ultimately made it to our Warmshowers home for the night, up one last steep climb to their place, of course. Our hosts had a wonderful little separate space set up for guests. There was stew left for us (though it was not vegetarian, as I'd failed to make my dietary needs clear), and later our host came by and left us beer and other goodies for the night, those I diligently consumed. He left us be with only a short talk that night, but we we had a really wonderful talk about our respective touring experiences and other topics in the morning over breakfast (which was vegetarian!).

Our next day saw us through more hills, but thankfully less bad. Our host for that night was out in the country, 50ish miles to Austin. It was a truly unique spot. She fed us dinner (I ate mostly salad as she had put meat in the lentil soup, indicating I really need to be better about letting folks know I'm vegetarian), and we talked about her long years she'd had out there in the country. She had built up her home piecemeal over the years, part of it from a shop she had bought cheap and relocated. She had a cute, cozy cabin for Warmshowers guests, with an outdoor kitchen at the back of it. No bathroom though. Just a bucket with a toilet seat and a big pile of mulch. This led to a dilemma, as I really had to poop, but wasn't too interested in the bucket. I ultimately decided I would be happier to just get it done, and well it wasn't as bad as I expected. ...The bad part was when I had to wake up in the middle of the night to do it again (of course, the first time all trip that I'd needed to go in any form during the night), and I had to use the bucket in the dark by the light of my phone. Again, it wasn't great, but it wasn't as bad as it could have been; at least it was only cold and not freezing. I'll admit though, I would have built a composting toilet or at least an outhouse if I was living in the same circumstance.

Oh, there was also the fox! It was really neat. She had a fox who came around every evening for scraps. We got to offer him so cornbread and have him come right up to us. ...He would also come around again while I was on the "toilet", doing awkward circles around me much of the time. It was definitely a unique experience.

The next day was a gorgeous ride into Austin. I couldn't say why exactly, but the rolling hills, golden wheat along the road, green trees, it just made me happy. We also finally ran into some other bike tourists! Though they weren't quite doing it the way we were. They were two older gentlemen, supported by their wives in two separate RVs, carrying their gear and giving them a place to sleep every night. I reminded Joel that while it seems less interesting a way of doing it for us, it's not so much "cheating" as it is just a different way of doing things. That said... There was a low water crossing with a few inches of water over the road across a creek in a valley, and they offered that their wives could take us across. We saw the RVs waiting when we got there, went right past, and plunged right through the water, only a little wetter for it. We got a good laugh when the RVs caught up later (we would see them a couple more times through the day), to hear the two tourists had been "forded" across. The ride into Austin wasn't bad. We veered off the ACA route and did our own thing, navigating through well enough and on fairly safe roads. The ride along the river trail was truly gorgeous. At the end of the fairly leisurely ride, we met up with Joel's cousin at her truly unique apartment in an industrial building where they make cabinets. I can't begin to describe how cool it was. Joel's family arrived a little later, having made the drive down to see Austin and meet up with us, as well as bringing us a care package (and more importantly, taking BACK stuff that we no longer needed thanks to the temperature warming up, including those bar mitts I'd been stuck with so long).

This post is already getting long, so I won't delve much into our rest day in Austin with Joel's family, save to say it was really fun. Joel's parents drove us downtown, where we split up, me wandering around the capitol, then the UT campus, before meeting up to have lunch at a Mexican food truck, and then checking out a bike shop/coffee place, before heading back to chill for the evening.

That night, Joel's cousin, Joel (yeah, I know, jokes were made), came in so he could ride with us the next morning. His dad rode a little ways with us out of Austin, then Joel met us at a gas station outside of town, his dad took the truck, and Joel (the cousin) swapped in for Joel's dad. He was in good riding shape, with a very light gravel bike unloaded, so he could do laps around us if he wanted. He kept our morale up with all his energy and enthusiasm, and provided a fun splash of new blood, someone different to talk to for the day. It was a really fun day. We met Joel's dad one more time in Giddings, to do lunch together, and to take Joel (the cousin), back to Austin. It was a good meal at a little Mexican spot (that whipped up something vegetarian not quite on the menu just for me), but I will admit my body kind of went into shutdown afterward, assuming it was done riding for the day, making the last almost 20 miles harder going. We stayed that night at an awesome spot in the country, in a bunkhouse above a barn, with a really cool older lady who was a skilled builder and had made her home, the barn, her workshop, and all. She reckoned over the many years of hosting that she'd had nearly 800 guests, and with her impressive hospitality and amazing location, I can't say I'm surprised.

The next day saw us to College Station where my friend Lilly has lived for nearly a decade. We got in early in the afternoon, giving us time to chat, go out to a local sort of Chipotle style place called Freebird, which offered a nice "beyond meat" option, get a sangria (from tap, which is apparently a thing) from a fancy movie theater in a faux upscale part of town, see some of A&M campus, including the statue in front of Kyle's Field that she was one of the models for (awesome I know), and shop at the local giant grocery chain, HEB, for all sorts of refrigerated, frozen, and microwaveable food (novel I know!) to eat on our rest day today. And all that before going out to a gay bar way past my bed time and see a really fun drag show. It was a really great day, even if I didn't quite get enough sleep last night as a result.

And today? Nothing. I have done nothing. Joel went to a coffee shop, for a walk, all sorts of stuff. I stayed here all day, contacting hosts, writing this blog, stuffing my face, chatting with Rachael, all that stuff. It's been great, a much needed rest day, even if it followed so close to another. There won't be another until New Orleans. And I guess that's likely when you'll hear from me next.