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Cycling Plus

Cycling Plus #7:
The Road to Bangkok
2/6/99

Laden with trucks, buses and cars Highway 4 cuts a concrete trail from Southern Thailand to Bangkok - an unavoidable 500 km grind, or so I thought. With its reputation for traffic and pollution, this was one stretch of road I had been dreading: I envied bus-bound travellers who saw it as a few roadside stops in the darkness of a long night.

But as luck would have it, I met Frenchman Claude, who knew a network of unmarked costal roads heading north. With a backpack strapped to a bike bought in Bangkok, this lean 50 year old and I cycled where the roads were smooth and quiet, linking small villages to towns, in areas bereft of foreigners. Our challenge lay in deciphering sign posts written in ornate Thai script and cycling under the hot season's oppressive sun.

One such town was Prachuap Khiri Khan. The big, open-plan hotel I found was typically Thai: a life size portrait of the King framed by the entrance, sleeping bodies, children and dogs in the reception, and a dignified Buddha surrounded by offerings. Summoning a few last iotas of energy, I ascended the 400 monkey-overrun steps to a temple overlooking the bay, where young Buddhist monks in their saffron robes watched life below. We left at sunrise as a motorised trishaw driver, a hammock slung across the cab fixed to his motorbike, slept on.

A detour through a beautiful national park exposed hidden temples and villages nestling in the rock face. By now an impending storm had brought a welcome coolness to the air. Tucked away on the third floor of a seemingly empty Chinese hotel in a town dotted with temples, I pondered the nomadic lifestyle of long distance bicycle touring - a different hotel almost every night.

The day had come to cycle to Bangkok - driving rain and a strong headwind cast further gloom over my mind. Pickups, stacked perilously high with baskets of food and clothes, disappeared into the wall of rain ahead. A truck sped by, carrying a water buffalo roped in by its horns, a dozen Thais clung to the framework and onto the roof, shouting out in rapid fire. 'What is your name/where are you from/how are you?' They too were soaked to the skin; smiling at each other. I felt a kind of camaraderie which lifted me above the miserable weather.

Hell began 20 kilometres from the capital; I was caught amidst the trucks and buses which had ground to a halt, breathing in their dark clouds of fumes. But once within the city, masked traffic police funnelled me through the chaos and I weaved my way between Tuk Tuks, Bangkok's colourful three wheeled taxis. I had made it!

And far from being the expected grind, the discoveries of the last week had reminded me about enjoying each day and sometimes stopping where you least expect - even if it's only half way to your destination. In the 6th century BC, Lao Tzu said: 'A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.'

Well, at least I won't have to worry about arriving for a while yet.

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