Monday, January 26, 2015

Sawadee Ka

Greetings from the land of the jack fruit

Where in the world is Melissa?  Great question! After my last blog post, I left it clear that I wasn't in Oregon anymore. I was enjoying being home, but usually my visits are about 3 weeks in length and during the summer. I had been at home since my birthday and the winter rain had settled in and despite having the company of my family, I have a hard time coping with the grey weather. I made the most of my time at home to visit family and friends. I went back and forth between Portland and Eugene spending time with my niece and nephews and fixing up my bike with a friend. In Eugene, I cooked up a storm for my parents, my mom and I worked on a few sewing projects, and I plugged away at the job applications. My days were long tackling a loong list of "things to do" and my bike trip seemed to be something of the far off past.

The bike getting a complete makeover

Sewing projects with Mom.  I design and she executes it with the sewing machine

I knew I wasn't going to last long at home. After having so much independence and being used to living far from home and in a sunny climate, I needed to make plans to do something besides sit around at home! I'm sure I could have landed a job working at a restaurant or cafe, but instead I decided to take advantage of my freedom, having two months free before I needed to be in France.

Christmas morning, nothing beats opening presents when you are a kid!

Gwyneth and Peter demonstrating self control with the empanadillas as a Christmas dinner appetizer
Spanish Tapas feast on Christmas Eve with the family

Ringing in the New Year with Mom and Dad and a Vietnamese Salad Roll feast along with Dim Sum

I left just after the New Year and headed to Bangkok, a ticket I purchased back when I thought there was a chance I still might get in to the job fair for international teachers at the start of January or at least be in the same location during the exact dates to meet with schools anyways. This seemed to make the most sense to me. In an ideal world, I would have landed a job prior to arriving in Bangkok and therefore I would be able to travel freely around SE Asia with plenty of destinations left to explore on bike. I was really counting on GEMS World Academy to offer me a job, and thankfully they did, giving me two months to travel. I had taken care of most of the footwork prior in order to start gathering paperwork for a swiss work visa, this just goes without say when you work in the international circuit: background checks, official transcripts, notarized diplomas, I had collected all the necessary paperwork and had it organized at home waiting to send off.

Never flew from the US to SE Asia, always from Europe, that is one (three actually) LOONG flight!
I found myself in Bangkok on January 6th, with my bike bike plus the rest of my luggage that needed to go to Lyon in March. Thankfully, I was able to stay with the same host I had met last year and left my luggage at their house while I traveled. Originally the plan was to explore Northern Thailand and Myanmar. Antsy, I didn't want to wait around for my Burma visa, nor deal with a country that has been cut off to tourism for many centuries, I set off pedaling north, thinking I would instead explore northwest Laos in addition to Thailand's mountainous region. Thailand is a welcoming country for tourists, especially bike tourism. They have an unbelievable network of roads and even the smallest rural roads have decent surfaces. Food is in an abundance, and not just your “run-of-the-mill” staples, we are talking amazing curries, stir fries, soups, meats, vegetarian dishes, salads, sweets, and of course my favorites, iced coffees and exotic fruit. It took me a whole hour after I built my bike to find jack fruit as I wandered the streets of Bangkok. I was so excited to get on my bike again, I flew in on a Tuesday morning and left the following morning, pedaling out of Bangkok, headed to the northwest.

Couldn't have asked for a more peaceful first night's rest in the raft house

My first stop a small town 60 kilometers, from the bustling city, the perfect distance for my first day on the road, where I stayed with a Warmshowers host Chris and his thai wife Karina, who run a guesthouse called “The Hidden Holiday House. Chris is an avid tour cyclist and had an abundance of route suggestions and maps to study. Not having studied my route much prior, my stay there was a key part of my trip planning. Not to mention, I got more insight into the Thai culture, reviewed my Thai and made my language cheat sheet, and enjoyed a night's rest in their raft house on the river in their backyard. I don't think I have ever seen a river quite like the Tha Chin that flows so heavily with the tides. When I arrived the current was moving from right to left, and later in the afternoon, I thought I was going crazy when the water all of a sudden had changed direction and was flowing left to right. The current of the river rocked me to bed that night, along with the accumulated jet lag, and I felt quite refreshed in the morning as I set out for my first real day of touring.

This was the section of pineapples on the side of the road, cut, peeled, and ready to eat!

Cha.......How I missed you so and my carnation condensed milk!

Oh, Southeast Asia, how I missed you, and Thailand especially where you have an amazing network of roads, the people are trustworthy you can leave your bike fully loaded and unattended just about anywhere and not have to worry, and the people constantly honk at you, smile, and give you a thumbs up! I forgot how much I have to exercise self-control and actually pedal before looking for the next little roadside stall to stop for a treat. What a sucker I am for all their little treats wrapped in banana leaves. I'm able to discern whether the contents are sweet or savory, and that is just about it, which makes eating such an adventure because you never know what to expect! Fruit galore lines the streets even out in the middle of nowhere, and you can easily eat your heart out and spend under 5 dollars a day! It seems surreal that 4 months ago I was pedaling in Alaska and found a bowling ball size watermelon selling for eight dollars. Here, the same size melon is priced just under a dollar and ever so sweet and fresh. You go through different regions while biking, for 10 to 20 kilometers all the roadside stands will be selling pomelo's, then the next strip of road has watermelons for sale. Then there might be a pause, and it is pineapple territory. It seems to me that if a roadside vendor wanted to really strike it rich, they'd drive 50 kilometers where everyone is selling tamarinds, and set up a stall to sell tangerines. But that is just it! Fruit and produce is so fresh here in Thailand, chances are you look around and just beyond the roadside stall is the farm crop where it grew.

I can easily justify carrying one of these guys on the back of my bike

Maybe this is where the watermelons in Alasaka came from.  The smallest start at 30 cents and the largest $1.20

Papaya salad or "Som Tom" a go to meal for 90 cents

I didn't say I necessarily eat all the food I see.....

Something else I missed about Southeast Asia are people's pleasant demeanors. I have yet to find an angry, ornery, or upset person. Regardless of their age, they all seem to have a smile on their face and are keen on acknowledging your presence. The people here in Thailand work hard. They have long days all thriving around the hours of sunlight. In fact, most people and places start surfacing at the crack of dawn. How can you not wake up with what seems like a procession of roosters coming through town in the morning. Regardless of the size of town I end up finding an accommodation, I never have to use my alarm in the morning. It is impossible not to hear the roosters crowing in the morning, but likewise, in the evening, when the sun goes goes and it gets dark, towns pretty much shut down. Sometimes it can be hard to find a restaurant or food stall open beyond 8pm, but then again, you are in the land of the 7-Eleven's and there is one on every street corner, open 24 hours a day in every decent-sized town.

Road markers every kilometer so you know when you hit the next town, although you might not know the name of it....

Bike stores are everywhere too with an abundance of stock!

I'm not the only one who has realized Thailand is a cycling paradise. It seems everyday I run into at least one other tour cyclist, and many times they are Thai's themselves on shorter week or two week-long tours. In the late afternoon, when I approach a town, there are usually a handful of cyclists on the road, out for what seems to be their daily ride, dressed to a “T” in cycling gear, covered from head to toe, protecting themselves from the sun. Which also makes me laugh. January, it is the dry season here in Thailand and one of the coldest months. Mornings are pleasantly chilly hovering around 12C to 17C, (55F to 60F) but come 11am, the sun has warmed everything up and temperatures soar into the mid-twenties, and even low 30C's (low 90F's). I smirk every time a motor scooter passes me and the driver is wearing a down jacket and long pants, or a knit hat. I'm in t-shirts and shorts, lathered in sunscreen no less, but pleasantly warm pedaling along. At night kids are commonly wearing fleece pijama, which goes to show you just how hot this country can be during the summer months!

Top notch bike with all the gear, this thai cyclist helped me locate a place to sleep in a town without any hotels

The down coats just crack me up, a bit extreme

They even bundle their dogs in winter gear.  Poor guy, I think he's overheating!

I was excited to cycle in Southeast Asia again, now that I have more confidence from my previous trip. I hadn't done much wild camping when I hit Southeast Asia last year and found myself staying at simple guesthouses. My intention this time was to do more camping, especially in temples. With my funds running low, I thought this made sense, but now that I know I will shortly have an income once again, I've gotten a bit lazy and seem to be staying primarily at those basic guesthouses once again. For just under ten dollars you have a simple room with clean sheets, hot water, and a fan, which serve a dual purpose in drying my clothes I wash each night and keeping the mosquitoes from buzzing. I have camped a handful of times when prices soared at guesthouses, but I'm embarrassed to admit, it has been in the lawns of guesthouses, where I was able to use their toilet and shower facilities, and was even served breakfast and coffee in the morning!

Like I said, cheap simple accommodation everywhere,....Don't think they realized the bad translation you?

I love my little bungalows!

Thailand, it is pretty hard to beat and easy to get lazy, even while riding 100 plus kilometers (60 miles) a day!

A serene natural paradise......... 

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