Thursday, January 29, 2015

Thailand's Main Highway: The Road Less Traveled By Cyclists

Usually cyclist avoid the main highways, as they are an artery with dense traffic, dust, noise pollution, and less scenic. Just that very morning I cam across two French cyclist pedaling in the opposite direction who came from Lampang, my destination in a couple of days. They told me about a beautiful scenic route, which like most scenic routes included a very steep climb for about 20 kilometers. Really, on any other occasion, this climb wouldn't have deterred me, but I was beat. After cycling Northern Thailand's mountains, also known as a relentless roller coaster, my legs were shattered. I was embarrassed to admit to them, but even the label of “very scenic” couldn't convince me. I was going to opt for the Thailand's main highway, route 1.

Highway 1 continually surprised me for a good 120 km.  No traffic, and more scenic than I imagined

Route 1 in Thailand goes all the way from the southern tip of the country on Malaysia's border to the northern border town of Mae Sai. I have ridden it before for short sections, and didn't find it that unbearable. After all, I was more than satisfied with all the scenery I had taken in up north, and it was only a 100 kilometer stretch. If there were mountains, the grade would be less steep, hopefully there would be a wide shoulder, and an occasional petrol station en route to stock up on sugary snacks and cold refreshments. The map for this 100 kilometer stretch however, only showed one town, Ngao, pronounced “Now” and that would be my overnight stop. As in the case during The Loong Way Home, I found that things always seemed to happen for a reason, and choosing Route 1 was no different!

One city was on the map, but there must have been about 10.  These signs always warned me.

Like I said, on my map, it looked as if there were no towns along this highway, as if it were located in the middle of nowhere according to my map because it was the flattest and most direct route to travel north to south. Yet, for the first 20 kilometers, no sooner did I pass through a town, there were signs for the next upcoming village cautioning traffic to reduce speed due to city limits. I didn't need any services in a town, I just thought it was fascinating that these small populations didn't show up on my map. That thought came too quickly as I pedaled out of a thriving town and started up a hill and I felt as if my bike tire was melting into the pavement, the sensation that all of a sudden your bike starts to bounce a bit.....yes, you guessed it, a flat tire.

I've been struggling with repetitive flat tires on my back wheel, although my tires are brand new, well, okay, with only 2,000 kilometers at most. It was my 4th puncture and never have I found the cause after a lot of probing, feeling, and trials. Upon, this flat, I decided to rotate my tires, and give the back tire a break. I knew this would take some time, so I pedaled back into town and looked for a motorcycle shop which are usually plentiful with the amount of scooters in Thailand. This time, I couldn't find a shop, but a shiny new Bianchi road bike caught my eye, on display it seemed in the window of a downstairs apartment. In front of the apartment was a small table in the shade, a perfect place to change a flat and surely the Bianchi owner would have a nice foot pump, making it more comfortable to swap out my tires.

Tony, the owner of the beautiful Bianchi, who lent me a foot pump making rotating my tires soooo much easier!

To my luck, the owner of the Bianchi spoke perfect English and was delighted to help me, although all I asked for was a foot pump, I could manage the rest! Wouldn't you know he had studied in Long Beach, California and was so thoughtful he checked in on me and brought me a couple of cold refreshments. I was thankful I got this puncture on the main highway rather than the small scenic route. I was I spoiled! I could see the puncture was yet again on the inside, the rim side, and by process of elimination and desperation, I figured my rim tape needed to be replaced. Although he told me there was a good shop in town, I thought I'd wait for one more puncture to confirm my hypothesis, and continued pedaling to Ngao. The road was curvy but flat and traffic was less to none, a true delight on a major thoroughfare!

I arrived in Ngao and pedaled through the main drag looking for a hotel. I've gotten really good at spotting the Thai sign for guesthouse. The government charges money for hotels to advertise in English, so I've found the establishments that only have Thai signage are cheaper. Together with the word hotel is the word 24 hours, no need for explaining that part, you can backtrack and read my posts on hotels in Vietnam when I discovered the world of hourly hotels.

My guesthouse for the night, conveniently located across the street from Aneh
I thought I spotted a hotel sign, but I continued on to see if there was a market, hungry at that moment took precedence over an accommodation. Indeed I found the night market and a sausage stand which hit the spot! For 30 cents you get a tasty protein bomb and some bitter cabbage to accompany. It was there that Aneh found me, an older Thai fellow on a motor scooter whose front was covered in plastic bags. There were plastic bags hanging off the handlebars, mirrors, in his front basket, everywhere! But more importantly Aneh spoke pretty good English and wanted to know where I was from. I always hesitate with this question.....Where is home anyways anymore? I answered with my revised version, I'm American but live in Spain,, which I follow up and say add Barcelona, you know Messi? Messi is like a universal word, everyone knows who he is and his football team. Aneh replied, ahhhh, España!!! Hola! Hola! Then he told me he went to Sevilla and Cordoba last year and then Portugal. Bingo, we had an instant connection! He knew a hotel in town and escorted me there, which just so happened to be hidden off the main drag in a small neighborhood and he lived across the street. Sure enough there was a sign, “Rooms for Rent” and I had my safe haven for the night! I asked the owner of the hotel, who also spoke good English if he could recommend a restaurant in town that would cook my up some vegetables, as I had a craving. I understood he'd be back in 30 minutes to take me, so I quickly showered and waited.

Agnao at night, the streets are pretty quite.  The new bridge is next to the old one, which was built by the Germans in WW11

He arrived with a bag of stir fried veggies for me, dinner was served! Aneh came over with sticky rice, small taro, an ice cream sandwich, and a bag of fruit. He told me repeatedly that he wanted me to tell all my friends that “Thailand is very hospitable!”, something I already knew! I was forced to eat desert first so it wouldn't melt everywhere and Aneh told me a bit more about himself and I also shared some of my background. It turns out we had a lot in common, both teachers, although he was a secondary social studies teacher, and now retired after 37 years. He invited me to accompany him the following morning to the market in the morning, his temple, and his former school. Of course I accepted, and so I went to bed early to be well rested for my 7am sightseeing in Ngao.

Agnao and the million of bags on his motor scooter

I was up with the first rooster calls, and got ready for my visit. Fog hovered in the village and the temperature was quite cool. Temperatures double during the day, soaring to about 30C, but the morning air is frigid and damp, about 12C. I hopped on the back of his motorbike, nearly doubling the weight of his bike (in addition to all the bags which were still hanging off his motor scooter like a christmas tree), we sputtered off to the lively morning market.

The bustling morning market
One of Aneh's friends.  This is a thai wheelchair, a neat contraption

I'm proud of myself if I make it on the road by 8am these days, so it's no wonder I miss the morning markets. They start at about 3am and finish by 8 or 8:30 at the latest. The tiny “sois” back alleys and pathways in Ngao were filled with vendors from fish, meat, prepared meals, sweet and savory. There were vegetables stalls and tables stacked with fruits, and people were with their bags, baskets, and carts shopping galore as if they hadn't been shopping for months. But that is the interesting phenomenon, they do this every morning, day in and day out, buying their daily groceries. Why stock up? Why buy massive quantities when a fresh market with goods picked the day before are available every single morning. These markets put farmers markets to shame in the states, and wouldn't compete even with neighborhood markets in Europe.

Every street had stalls selling things

I imagine this herb was picked yesterday evening 

These monks are quite sharp, asking for a lottery ticket and getting their offerings at the local market

Aneh guided me through parts of the market, proud to introduce the pharang (foreigner) to everyone and anyone who stared, which was basically everyone. I can make out a few words, like pharang and Sa-pain, (Thai pronunciation of Spain) he really fixated on this country rather than the United States. He sent me off to wander on my own, knowing that I couldn't get lost or go astray because everyone was tracking my location.

Roasted chetntuts, the first I have seen in N. Thailand


by 8:30 everything was already shut down and clean, no sign of a market 

After the market, even more bags were hanging off Aneh's moto

After the market we hopped back on his motor scooter and whizzed off to the school. We arrived just as the morning assembly was gathering on the field, something I have seen all over Asia. Students gather on the field in front of the school in the morning as the head master or teachers make announcements, and the kids sometimes break into a song or chant. Schools in Asia are on par with school facilities in suburban North American, a sprawling campus and lots green space with various buildings. Again, Aneh was eager to introduce me to all the staff. He had now invented a nickname for me, “daughter of bull”, symbolic of my strength and bravery perhaps for cycling alone on a bike around the world. He brought me to the staff room where the English teachers were running off copies of the daily lessons. He showed me a copy and my jaw dropped. What???? What kinds of worksheets and questions are these? Being a native speaker, I don't think I would have answered even one of the questions correctly. And why on earth would students be motivated to learn about the color of guppies? I picked up the next xerox, even more mind blowing- a Charlie Brown comic that was far beyond any beginning level of English I had heard on the streets of rural Thailand. I started having flashback to the public school I visited in rural China where the students only knew the names of British food and drink when I asked them their favorite food. Ridiculous!

Students walking back from the morning assembly

Aneh introduced me to the head of the English Department. Her English was quite good. To my surprise she told me she has two American teachers on staff. Again, my mouth dropped. Where were these American teachers, I wanted to meet them. Aneh took me to the English language office. The sign above the door made me crack up, and pretty much sums up the teaching of English in public schools in Thailand: random unpractical vocabulary, route memorization, meaningless exercises and worksheets, useless......

No comment,......this is a school.  Are these signs suppose to inspire learning?

I feel dumb trying to answer this question

Really, do you think a 10th grader can answer this or even use this knowledge if they have the opportunity to speak English?

Then I met Caroline and her partner LJ, working as English teachers stationed in Ngao for a semester. Caroline was shortly going back to school in social work and had never taught before, but LJ was keen on pursuing a Master's in Education after getting his certificate from a university in Wisconsin, their home turf. I had so many questions for Caroline who was on her break and she gave me a lot of insight into the Thai education system. It was eye-opening for me to hear, followed by another insightful experience observing LJ teaching a class of the brightest students in high school. Thai schools group their students by levels, that is their academic levels in Math and Science. The top of the class in Math and Science are grouped together, then the next strongest group of students and so on until you move down to the bottom of the class. Their levels are based on Math and Science, which in no way depicts their English ability, as if to condone heterogenous grouping in the first place. Talk about a lack of motivation for students to achieve if you have been and always will be labeled according to your ability when it was measured for the initial grouping. Shocking! 

The school hallways on the 3rd floor.  There were about 2,000 students from grades 6 to 12th

LJ's English class I observed

Caroline told me they had quite a bit of freedom with the curriculum and could basically teach anything they wanted. They had take a course to receive their TOEFL certification, but since the student's level of English was no where near the most basic level of English in the TOEFL system, it wasn't applicable. Caroline told me her highest level students in high school still couldn't tell the difference between the questions “How are you?” and “What is that?” and here I had seen the xerox of the guppies and Charlie Brown. Thankfully they have each other at the end of the day to reflect upon their experience and take it with a grain of salt. They also blog about their experience in Thailand and travel on the weekend, Caroline enjoys running, which was quite funny to hear about how they stare at her as she runs on the streets, something very rare in Thailand. Caroline and LJ aren't going to change the Thai education system, they know that, but I must commend them on digging in and getting first hand exposure to an education system that is completely different to that of the western world. What a unique experience they are having, especially considering they are in rural northern Thailand with virtually no other westerners in town. Aneh loves to visit with them and chat and each time he brings photo albums of his travels for them to look at, showing how proud he is of his global exposure.

Some department head, myself, Aneh, and Caroline 

I left Aneh's school feeling somewhat shameful and resentful, comparing my international teaching experience to that I would have at a rural public school in a developing nation. I left the school I visited in China feeling the same. Observing a school like that where the system makes no sense and with evidence that it isn't effective makes me want to work there, a system I'd like to challenge and test my own ability as an effective teacher. Where would I even begin? How would I motivate the students or communicate with them? It kept my mind whirling and whirling as I set off pedaling to Lampang, my destination for the day, again following the busy freeway, highway 1. Only to my surprise, there was hardly any traffic and a wide shoulder all to myself. So you see, in the end, taking the road less traveled by cyclists proved to be just like any other day on my bike. Filled with a lot of unexpected, yet gratifying and memorable experiences.   

Highway 1, quiet and beautiful, just delightful! 

1 comment:

  1. Una vegada mes acabo de rebre una lliçó magistral sobre la cultura d'una pais meravellós com Tailandia. Gracies