Dogs in fridges

Dengue fever doesn’t feature in the advertising campaigns of Thailand’s ministry of tourism. They don’t produce brochures scattered with photos of pallid, sweaty westerners with handlebar-ribs and bleeding gums and the words ‘Come to Thailand – land of smiles, white-sand beaches, and devastating tropical disease.’ And whilst malaria is on the down worldwide, dengue has blossomed. A graph of dengue over time has the look of a ski jump. Since my own bout everyone I meet seems to have had it, or knows someone who has. Nobody, as far as I know, was lured to the experience by a brochure.

I left Ao Nang after ten days that brimmed with frustration and lassitude.With dengue, you don’t really feel like eating, and for bicycle travel that’s kind of a requisite. On day one, those anorexic days showed in every laboured mile, but the next day I woke feeling a world better, my cadence returned, and I clocked up 140 km by nightfall. On a rural back road three South Africans on bikes pulled over. Cycle touring for them had been a spur-of-the-moment call, spelt out in their makeshift racks, tacked on to local mountain bike frames. They’d fudged what they needed using string and tape. A kickstand was a piece of wood. Things flapped and jutted. I was inspired by their invention: They were a visual statement of the fact that there are no obstacles to ambition.

The north of Thailand and Laos are inviting places to ride, awash with great scenery, food and things to stop and see. But I was a little uninspired by the thought of months in the more visited realms of SE Asia, the breezy bits, so I formulated a new plan. I wanted to instill some sense of purpose into my journey again, and I yearned for more of an adventure. To those ends I set up visits to medical clinics, one for refugees on the Burmese border and another set in an isolated part of Cambodia. And I changed my route. Anachronistic Burma fits the adventure mandate, despite the growing taste for tourism, so this comes next. Then I’ll be following in the track marks of a few intrepid bikers who have recently crossed into the Indian province of Nagaland via the tightly controlled border with Burma, one that requires permits. More permits will be required for the adventurous terrain of Arunachal Pradesh. I’ve even set my sights on Bhutan, though the VISA remains a long shot. The Indian and Nepalese Himalayas come next (perhaps even riding the Annapurna circuit), then through Pakistan, over the Khunjerab pass before it closes for the winter. Central Asia will be a bitter challenge in mid-winter with temperatures dropping to perhaps to minus 30 or minus 40, but a challenge is what I need so I’ll get kitted out in Kathmandu. Spring in the Caucuses, chased by summer in Europe, will be the prize. Home, very tentatively, planned for September 2015.

I pedalled hard up the west of Thailand pulling long days, chowing down Pad Thai in my short breaks and hammering through until dusk. Wooden shacks selling pineapple and mango and papaya were arrayed on the roadsides, in their shadows cable-thin kids stewed in hammocks, stirring only to the whistle of a customer. The heat was stifling, the air curdled. Afternoons were a fuzzy-headed fight against heat that dared me to stop and rest every half hour. Snakes of searing green lay dead on the road, like scattered twine. Old women kept alive that old Thai cliché, ‘the Land of Smiles’, through their sudden, brown-toothed grins. Here and there I rolled past the hum and jostle of local markets, cooks and sellers perched behind stalls hoping to lasso me with offers I couldn’t understand. The air was perfumed with barbecued meat, a drifting promise of the weight I’d lost to dengue fever.




Sitting in a restaurant, puzzling over a poster in which coca cola purported to be official sponsors of Ramadan, or something, a breeze of murmurs lifted from the huddle of bodies around the TV. A message read ‘following the implementation of martial law, the following are appointed… ‘ and continued with a list of military personnel and details of a nationwide curfew. This was then replaced by the words ‘National Peace and Order Maintaining Council’. Take that, Orwell. Though martial law had been declared, General Prayuth Chan-ocha reassured everyone that this was not a coup, only to change his mind two days later ‘yeah sorry, did I say it wasn’t a coup? I meant it is a coup, definitely a coup’. According to some western media outlets though, whether or not there was mass blood-letting was neither here nor there; what really mattered was how this was going to affect the travel plans of all those virtuous tourists so far from home. Sex tourism never had it so tough.

The Thai Government had been widely charged with large scale corruption, amongst other things they had bought votes by offering farmers deals too good to be true. Most Thais I spoke to considered the coup a good thing for Thailand, and most Thais accepted the military power-grabbing with an easy calm. I had to wonder why – was this simply because they supported the opposition, or was it apathy, or the quintessentially East Asian reticence to rocking the boat, or a fear of repression? There was some dissent, but it was tepid. Students gave out sandwiches announcing ‘sandwiches for democracy’ on the streets of the capital; others clustered in silent readings from 1984, or made three finger salutes (a gesture borrowed from The Hunger Games.)

This is run of the mill in Thailand, there have been 19 attempts at coups since 1932, most have been successful. A coup rolls around only slight less often than an election. This one even began with an apology to the government ‘I’m sorry’ said General Prayuth Chan-ocha ‘but I have to seize power’, before swiftly detaining known activists, journalists and ousted politicians. Justification for the curtailing of the media was that ‘if you let people talk now, they will be critical’ – a cast-iron defence, obviously. After US condemnation of the coup, a widely viewed video on youtube (dubbed ‘a letter to Jon Kerry and the world’) showed soldiers holding not just guns but bouquets of flowers and posing for photos with passersby. ‘Martial-law selfies’, as one newspaper described them, had actually become a thing. The Thai army then began a surreal campaign of ‘bringing happiness’ to Thailand which involved festivals, free food and health checks, which in place of a democratically elected government, is not a great trade. Ironically it was populist manoeuvres of the former government that were sited as a defence of the coup in the first place.  I imagine gathered protesters screaming ‘ARMY OUT! ARMY OUT! ARMY… wait, is that a free hamburger?’

The highway north to Bangkok was an oppressive mess of parked and rushing trucks, edged by electric cables and scattered junk. Thailand’s back roads beckoned. My map though might have been sketched from the memory of a cartographer who was too busy to bother with any research. Every time I got lost I spent minutes gawking at the signposts trying to decode the script, which looked like a row of medieval instruments of torture, some broken horseshoes and small rodents. Locals directed me back to the highway, sure that was what I was searching for, so on it went, looping my way vaguely northwards. Luckily rural Thailand is lovely.

On one afternoon mountainous black clouds clustered over the ragged saw of the Burmese peaks to my west, and the building wind whispered of the coming rain. I took a double take at a temple. Could I ask to stay? As I wheeled my bike inside dogs stirred into charges, yapping. The orange robed monks swished in and out of the temple, like drunk bees about a hive. One approached as I dawdled, ashamed and tentative, in the car park. I did my best ‘International Symbol of Sleep’ – palm to palm, hands placed under my tilted head. He considered me over his glasses and swung around in a whip of orange cloth. I trailed him, assailed by the eyes of the other monks, until he swung open the door of a wooden hut to reveal a small mat splayed on the ground, my own bedroom.

Local people cooked for the monks and themselves at the rear of the temple. Breakfast was epic – rice noodles, chicken broth, curries, sauces, and as we gorged a scattering of children ran figure eights around our feet. As someone who takes breakfast very seriously indeed, this was impressive. Stuffed, a huge silver vat arrived. The man next to me clasped his hands together and said something in Thai I didn’t understand but later realised must have been ‘Great! Here’s the ice cream’. It was not yet 8 am, but time of course is no barrier to ice-cream. Outside I saddled up but noticed that a small procession was snaking out of the temple, dense with wailing women and baskets of flowers, and I was sucked into the ferment.

Prachuap Kiri Khan is a coastal town, presided over by a small hill to the north where a troop of monkeys mooch through the streets, as insouciant as the fishermen. Weekends are dominated by the quay side market which is a tumult of diners, drinkers, breakdancing kids, and women doing aerobics. At night the harbour is stringed by the green lights of squid fisherman. It was here I planned to meet Andrew X Pham, to give him his proper title. Andrew once cycled the west coast of the States and Japan, but it was his journey through Vietnam that came to be the main focus of his subsequent book, Catfish and Mandala, lauded as a triumph of travel writing and memoir. He’s Vietnamese-American, and when a French lady we met turned to him and said ‘Your English is very good’ thinking him a local, I had to laugh.

In Andrew I saw a kindred tendency to obsession – he’d launched himself from one passion to the next, like a freight-hopper – at once an engineer, a cycle tourer, a respected author, who along the way has taught himself to fly ultralights, lived on a sailing boat for two years, and built a farm. We lounged on beaches, drank beer with deadpan Aussies, ‘old soaks’ I believe is the term, with moustaches as big as carrots, and who said, after hearing of my journey ‘well mate, you got bigger balls than me, and I got some big fucking balls’. I met Andrew’s wife and friends, including a Dutchman who years before had arrived in Thailand by bicycle after pedalling from Europe. He married, built a farm despite some vague local discouragement, and when we met he was herding a troop of goats amongst palm trees. I have added ‘goat herder’ to the list of possible consequences of this bike ride around the world, it comes just after pearl diver, shaman and hopeless vagabond.

From Prachuap I followed a canal heading north, eyed by egrets and other birds of almost every hue. Fields of pineapple and sugarcane spanned the vista. At Phetchaburi I asked some roadside fruit vendors for a cheap hotel but an entrepreneur in the pride led me instead to a property he owned which was available and we debated a price. That night I headed out to gorge on Pad Thai, stopping at a convenience store on the busy main road for a soft drink. Inside the fridge I saw what looked like dogs nestled beside the Pepsi and mineral water, two of them. I stalled. Must be toys, I decided. I peered closer only to see wet noses and veiny ears. Shocked I opened the door slowly and they stirred and peered up at me, so I reached behind them for a Pepsi and closed the fridge door. I later confided this story to a European friend who lives in Thailand, who said simply ‘Well, Thai people can be very practical’.

Dogs in the fridge reminded me that Bangkok is the hottest major city in the world (in terms of annual averages). It’s also thick with traffic. I decided to get the train in and resolved to get a train out, back to the same station, so that my journey still feels unbroken. Bangkok is not a city designed for pedestrians, in fact it feels much like the designer of Bangkok was once, as a child, walking hand in hand with his cherished grandmother when she was grappled from behind and pummelled to death by a mad pedestrian. Now, he’s getting his own back. These streets are for driving. I yearn for the days when cars are banished from city centres, when public transport and bike lanes and pavements reign supreme.

The adverts that come via flat screen TVs on the sky train are a good window into the lusts and likes of the Bangkok natives – they are either for cosmetics or some new technology, and looking around every heavily painted Thai woman and girl were face down in their Iphones.

The Thai greeting, known as the wai – a slight bow with hands palm to palm in prayer-like fashion, clicks perfectly with the polite, pleasant air of the people, though it’s origins are less convivial. One theory goes that the wai developed because it was a way of demonstrating that the people meeting weren’t carrying weapons. Its not just a greeting of course, but a farewell too, an apology, a sign of gratitude, even a piece of marketing – posters of a half dozen Manchester United players, hands palm to palm, adorned the wall of one restaurant I visited, and outside MacDonald’s a man-sized plastic Ronald MacDonald is mid-wai, stripping it completely of its innocence and warmth, a corporate smack-down. The higher the hands and lower the bow, the more respect is shown, as the begging mother in Bangkok who cradled an adult son with just stumps for arms and legs, demonstrated.

In Bangkok I stayed with an Italian girl, Elena, a friend of a friend and we roamed the city, hanging out with the many hipsters here and eating, of course. I applied for my Burmese and Indian VISAs and spent days writing and reading. Oh God, what to see in Bangkok. Overwhelmed by the ‘must see, must do’ lists on every website and every guidebook, I decided instead to simply take a boat down the river, peek briefly at the Khaosan road and then visit a macabre museum. I knew I was entering the orbit of the Khaosan road because the trousers, more accurately, the pantaloons, of fellow travellers were becoming increasingly dramatic. In the end, the famed ‘backpacker zoo’ was not what I had hoped for. An explosion of signs greets you, coming in from the side of every building like the outstretched arms of beggars, or prisoners behind bars. Soon it becomes apparent it’s just a commercial hub of t-shirt vendors selling the same singlets, and heckling tuk tuk drivers. Being footloose and aimless is not a quality to be encouraged on the Khaosan Road and every two minutes I was forced to defend my purposelessness ‘what you want? Where you wanna go?’ Nobody ushered me down a side street and offered to sell me a litre of cobra blood or invited me for a foursome with three lady-boys. So instead I went shopping for second hand books. There’s genuine rapture in the promise of a good book hiding amidst a hundred dull ones. I can spend hours inside. In the past I have stolen from the better book exchanges and then given, without taking, to those less endowed with the pearlers. I liken myself to the Robin Hood of literature.

The museum of forensic pathology probably should be more controversial than it is. Death-porn is the only way to describe it. A line of photos unveils some of the city’s unfortunates – a man decapitated in a train wreck, his severed head plopped inches above his torso on the bed. Then the aftermath of murders by multiple stab wound and by bullet. I learned what a hammer attack might look like, and the bloody consequences of a hand grenade. One sign read ‘throat cut by beer bottle’, another simply ‘suicide’, but how the man managed to cut not just his wrist but his entire hand off requires some contemplation. In another room are still born infants with deformities, in another the mummified remains of a select few of the cities rapists and murderers. There is a parasite room too, centre stage, and the prize exhibit, is the half metre wide scrotum of a man with elephantiasis. The line can be blurred between what’s distasteful voyeurism and what’s the stuff of genuine scientific interest. For me the photos for one go beyond the safe side of that line. For the curators though only a photo depicting a woman who was beaten and stabbed to death by a dildo was deemed overkill (pun intended) and has recently been removed.

Many of the exhibits featured victims that have succumbed in one way or another to city’s heavy traffic, and in retrospect, given that to get to Elena’s house I was reliant on the city’s motorbike taxis, this wasn’t the most choice viewing. As my driver skimmed at light speed through a moving alleyway of metal I now had two things to worry about – the statistics (Thailand having one of the worst rates of road accident in the world) and the images to go with them, etched forever on the inside of my retinas. ‘Lacerated liver’ and ‘tire tread marks’ came back to haunt me.

You would need a lot of Semtex to get through the red tape that surrounds the process of getting an Indian VISA in Bangkok.

This is the protocol, lifted directly from the Indian Embassy website…

  • When filling in your VISA application form please write clearly, in block capitals. Please also write only in the ancient language of Aramaic, using a 15th century Ottoman quill and the fresh blood of an albino.
  • Please print 77 copies of your application form and submit between the minutes of 5.11 am and 5.22 am. The VISA department is open every second Sunday, except on the national holidays of every country in the northern hemisphere and Fiji.
  • Please attach 17 character references, a lock of hair, photos of your parents before the year 1963 and a pencil sketch of the Hindu god Vishnu.
  • Photos must accompany the application. They should be on a magenta background and must include your naval. Additionally the photo subject should feign an expression of ennui, other emotions will render your application invalid. At least one photo should feature a pair of maracas.
  • Business VISA applicants must bring their own fax machine and petrol powered generator to the embassy when submitting their application
  • All signatures should be chiseled into an igneous rock (though basalt is not accepted) and tethered to your application form. Bring your own chisel.
  • Those with blood group B or with degrees in horticulture will be refused VISAs
  • A new biometric test has been adopted by the Indian Embassy in Bangkok. The Indian government will keep your corneas and a sample of your bone marrow – these will be returned to you on departure. For 700 US dollars.
  • You will also be required to give a performance of a Bollywood hit song which will be recorded on video. To prove your identity whilst in India you may be required by officials to replicate this performance.
  • The visa fee is 1425 US dollars per day for your planned stay in India. This fee must be converted and paid in precious gem stones or Zambian Kwacha.
  • Please detail how you plan to arrive in India. Please also note that it is forbidden to arrive by land or air. You may arrive by teleporter, or by sea, though those found to be using a vessel of any kind will be deported to their country of origin.
  • Spelling mistakes are punishable by firing squad
  • Passports are not required

So did I get my Indian VISA? Well yes, but only after parting with almost 100 quid, and then finding out that they have changed the rules and now only issue three month VISAs instead of the coveted six, perhaps because a new administration has come in, or because the albino I chose to venesect was slightly anaemic. The three months you are allowed begins immediately instead of when crossing the border, meaning I have to make short work of north-west Thailand, the whole of Burma and eastern India in order to clock out, as it were, in Nepal. Better get motoring then.

Thank yous – Andrew, Elena, my old mate Emma and Jennifer.

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Comments (7)

  • Avatar

    Jocelyn

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    I had a moment there with those dogs in the Pepsi fridge. Thank Moses they stirred, lest you have been tempted to pluck them up, buy a wok, and fashion your own dinner.

    As always, your posts take me on the best trip. They are a joy.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Derek Spanfelner

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    Glad to see Dengue hasn't vanquished your traveling spirit and sense of humor! Another leg in your wonderfully honest and insightful narrative; I look forward to your adventures in India 🙂

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Anonymous

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    There’s genuine rapture in the promise of a good book hiding amidst a hundred dull ones – lovely

    Reply

  • Avatar

    fraser

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    Another great read Steve, I've just arrived into Nepal and will be in Kathmandu for 3 – 4 months. It sounds like you may be here around the same time, would be nice to meet if you fancy?

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Stephen Fabes

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      Cheers Fraser. I found your blog so I'll email you once I get closer. Let me know the dates you'll be there – are you working there? All the best mate. Catch up soon.

      Reply

  • Avatar

    Olly

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    Good show mate. Glad to hear you've chosen a sensible route through the Himalayas.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Michael Parsons

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    What a delight to find your blog. I am not able to cycle as much as you but you are an inspiration. My upcoming trips are Hawaii, New York, Thailand and Vietnam. I need to find one or more people to cycle the Ho Chi Minh Highway in Dec 2016 https://getmytravelingshoes.wordpress.com/

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