There was nothing up north between Laos and Myanmar to draw tourists, just paved minor roads following rivers through small towns which is exactly what I wanted. We decided to do Thailand separately to have independence, and a break from the constant compromises; two weeks of greedy freedom. I felt like I was awake properly for the first time in months that first afternoon after crossing the border, like spring used to wake me up in Canada when it finally arrived and simple options that were dreamed about for months are possible again. There were hundreds of flat kilometres to enjoy between me and the mountains before Myanmar. Given a smooth flat road and feeling that happy, cycling was as effortless as sitting back in a Lazy-E-Boy watching the scenery unfold in a film. I could do whatever I felt was a days worth of riding in a few hours and fill the rest of my time sitting in shade reading or swimming or whatever the hell else I felt like. It was closer to normal life, closer to what couriering had been: confined to my general route across the country like pick-ups and drops guiding my days course on my XDA, never having to slow down, or stop for breaks, or talk through decisions.
The first night across the border I was on a busy road and spotted a vacant lot with a view of a stream running into the dark brown river. It was like an idyllic Canadian campsite, mowed grass with an obvious place for a fire, trees on the sides and pleasing view. It was directly across the road from a little wooden house, I figured it could be their property so went over to ask permission. Traffic was too fast and thick to cross the road and as I waited for a gap a man pulled up to the house on a motorbike with a rickety wooden cart looking exhausted. I got across and tried to ask him if it was ok. He was just smiling and repeating what I’d say or mime. ‘Can I sleep here?’ is now down to three gestures finishing with a thumbs up/thumbs down option. He didn’t understand but was happy to do thumbs ups. Figuring I’d tried my best, I crossed the road and started making dinner. He kept coming out of his house and giving me thumbs up as I cooked. I couldn’t be bothered getting the head torch out so as I was sitting in the dark finishing dinner when he came over with a pack of candles for me. I tried to explain I didn’t need them and showed him my head torch but it wouldn’t turn on, then tried to just take one, but he was insistent and I sat in candle light while his large happy wife waved over to me across the road like an overly enthusiastic BnB owner. Other than the ladyboys at the border town 7-Eleven he was the first Thai who’d spoken to me.
My first moment of disillusionment with solo travel came a few days in when I’d stopped early and was sitting on the edge of a rubber plantation staring at the river. The brown water was barely moving, it was humid, it’d been over an hour since I stopped cycling but my face was dripping with sweat, 15 hours to go until sunrise and breakfast, I had my headphones in but wasn’t enjoying the music, and it seemed like having someone to speak with could make the situation funny instead of dull. I sat there for 30 minutes empty brained, thinking about all the snacks I didn’t buy at the shop earlier. I had to think out loud to prioritise what had to be done. Standing alone saying, ‘put up the tent’ made me imagine how strange I could be if I did this alone for a while.
I was taking photos at that campsite on the Mekong an hour later when I took my eye off the viewfinder and was jolted with shock by someone standing very close to me. I was squatting and almost fell in my boiling rice but kept my balance and accidentally took 2 photos. A woman had walked through the trees and was standing there staring at me smiling 10 feet away, and then soon giggling. Still giggling and covering her mouth like a Japanese school girl, she came over to me and offered fresh garden greens for my dinner. Her big family made their way through the rubber trees to me in groups of 2 and 3 while night settled in. Their dogs came last, snarling and barking. They made wide circles around me, moving in gradually like wolves in a cartoon. I didn’t pay them any attention until they got close and then called their bluff with a couple quick steps towards them, they backed off and gradually circle-stalked away, still snarling and growling, like they we’re being drained into the woods.
It was still dark when I woke up to voices and scraping, then silence and two lights shining into my tent. They didn’t respond to hellos so I got out of the tent waiting for them to do something in their head torch light. Predictably they started laughing at seeing me standing in my undies, we shook hands, and they went back to their work. It had just gone 5am. I watched their two head torches spotlighting their work in the still black morning. They went about it as if they were trying to set PBs at each tree. The full bowls of hardened white rubber were dumped on the ground, then a new groove was carved round the tree, metal spout replaced, and the empty bowl put back. I thought of passing men like these lounging in the shade at midday thinking they were lazy but these 2 had finished around 1000 trees before sunrise.
The next night, another head torch, this one 30 feet away for a couple minutes stuck on my tent, no response to hello, and then back the way it came through the trees. I didn’t bother getting up. It felt like someone had walked into my bedroom but maybe the feeling was mutual. As I emerged from the roadside trees in the morning there was a very old man with a crooked back sweeping up a sandstorm from his porch. He came over and we both realized who each other was from the night before. I was invited for coffee and shown around his farm which he was very proud of. He wore a back support over his shirt that was done up so tight on his tiny waist that it looked more like a corset. We got to know about each other’s families through his unpredictable English. I rode away with him holding his broom in the air and when I looked back each time he was still standing there waving.
I’d started making simple flat bread each morning in Laos to fill up with scrambled eggs and turned semi-pro in Thailand. They’re like pita or naan depending on the heat of the pan and amount of oil. With a strong coffee it feels like the day can’t possibly suck having starting that good.
On the 11th I had gotten stuck just before sunset along a grim highway sprawl. There was a roadside rest area I pulled into hoping to find a quiet spot. It was a rough place with burning garbage and broken bottles everywhere. There were a group of young guys drinking by motorbikes and scooters who were silent while I went by but yelled out as soon as I’d passed. I swung my bike around as soon as they started yelling and cycled up to them. They were on a range of drunkenness, from passed out with vomit on their shoes to mostly sober. Two of them went off and returned with supplies for me: water, snacks, and a metal spoon to eat my noodles with. We had an arm wrestling comp after dinner and 2 of them beat me. They kept saying it was fine if I camped there and also, confusingly, that people with guns would come shoot me, pulling their shirts up and pretending to be shooting guns. There was a slight ominous vibe alongside their friendliness and when the most sober guy invited me to stay with his family they kept saying, ‘it’s no longer safe here’.
I was the first farang her brother had ever spoken with. Our families had similarities: their dad died a year ago, ‘too many Laos beer’, and they lived in a similar sort of town near a highway that I had grown up in. My friend and I played computer games and drank beer with his mates. Their mum served dinner for us and Jan, his younger sister. She told me her mum worked many jobs, she was a teacher, an engineer, one day a week she baked Kanom Dok Jok, and more things on the side. Jan woke at sunrise to say goodbye. She was a fun and impressive girl, strong and determined like her mum, she held herself with dignity without being serious. She waved goodbye and yelled out, “HAPPY BRITHDAY!” as I pulled back onto the highway. I wondered what Jan would get up to, if she’d get pregnant young like her mum or move away to a city and start a career, and some of her possible lives filled my mind as I freewheeled down the empty foggy road.
We decided to meet in Phitsanulok for my birthday. We rode into the city together, got a hotel, room service food, made a good showing at the breakfast buffet, and were generally slobs for 24 hours which suited us both perfectly. Jorja took a bus after we left town and got 80km ahead of me skipping over a highway plains area and hit the mountains just before Myanmar first. I timed it badly the next day and started a long climb at about 3pm. I popped at 4pm and had to walk my bike. The road was narrow so I was walking on the gravel shoulder up the hills with trucks going by too fast to grab onto although I tried a couple times. I was slipping on the gravel trying to keep the bike moving. I’ve never walked my bike so far. The gradient was between 8-12%. I got into a pattern of thinking if I’d walk another 5 minutes I would recover and could cycle again. But after 2 minutes of trying to spin up or grind a big gear slowly it felt like I was missing organs. No burning legs or gasping out of breath, I just didn’t have anything left. I’ve never been too tired to ride before and it knocked off some cockiness.
I picked up eggs and water after I’d gotten over the top and was invited to camp behind the shop where I bought them. I settled in to making another big pot of vegetables, rice, and egg. A scorpion walked around my stove while I cooked dinner and a big hairy spider that seemed to be on a high dose of amphetamines darted around madly. I was watching dogs playing in the already harvested corn field, with banana trees dotted about, pine trees on the edge of the field, the sun setting on it all, and I smirked remembering how I’d imagined Thailand would be 10 days ago and how different and better the reality had been.