Faux pas on another planet

Siam shimmered in the heat.

After the normal bureaucratic back and forth at the border I made my way out of the cool frontier hills.

Flanked by the lush green of Thale Ban National Park 

Once down onto hot lowland tarmac I bumped into a a Malay cycle tourist Zohan who shared some of his bananas with me. A welcome potassium boost as I'd so far failed to procure any Thai Baht. I rectified this oversight in a small roadside cafe. An elaborate mime indicating a need for currency soon attracted the local Del Boy and some helpful onlookers. Wildly unprepared for the resulting exchange-rate negotiation I nonetheless emerged with some local lolly and at a rate which wasn't too far from fair.

A great days ride followed as I fairly flew through the flat-lands of Saturn, Thailand's southernmost state.

Top-most in my mind as I cruised along was not the fascinating history Thailand boasts, nor the amazing cuisine, nor even the stunning natural beauty. Rather, I was pre-occupied by a desire to watch Liverpool FC play Manchester City. Fortunately my predilection for watching millionaires kick a ball around is shared by many Thai's and after a few false dawns I located a bar that would be showing the game that evening.

Kick off local time was 10pm so I needed to find a place to sleep for the night then double back to the bar. I had been following up a lead on a nearby temple where I'd been told travelers could camp the night. With only vague directions I had trusted to my ability to ask locals the exact location. However a Thai temple or Wat is pronounced 'waaaat', my lack of appreciating for tonal subtleties meant my inquiries as to where the 'what' was provoked only blank incomprehension. It was with delight then that I stumbled upon an abandoned house discretely screened from the main road which would suit my purposes perfectly.

The nights football watching was great fun. Liverpool won, the Thai's were forgiving of the musty cyclist in their midst and I enjoyed a few beers a bite to eat and a bit of a sing song with newly made friends.

After a wobbly post-midnight return to my pre-scoped digs I fell gratefully into the dark embraces of the shack.

I found semi-consciousness amidst an unpleasant dream. Birds pecked at my flesh as I squirmed unable to escape. As the dream receded it was replaced by the very real corporeality of being bitten.

Bitten all over.

Frantically squirming out of my sleeping bag liner I madly hopped, pulling off lycra cycling shorts, as cascade of ants were flung from my much abused body. After the initial shock had worn off and most of the assailants had been brushed from my nakedness I surveyed the damage in the half-light. My bedding and clothes were writhing in a tide of ants. A further column had sought to cut my supply lines by snaking its way up my bicycle and into my food pannier.

Any thoughts of an early start were thus postponed while Operation Eradication was put into effect. The painstaking process of picking and flicking each ant from its newly won territorial gains took a good hour but eventually my possessions were mine to posses unmolested once again. Yet again the natural world came up short in its efforts to usurp Man's domination. When will it learn!?
The forests have ears

Finally underway I took a round-about route, preferring a longer but quieter and cooler way through the Gum Tree plantations. A pleasant morning soon became a blistering afternoon as I rejoined the main highway.

The landscape began to break up and undulate with karsk formations emerging on the horizon.

Labouring against the inclines and the heat I jumped at the chance to investigate a sign which presented the enigmatically outline of a Wooly Mammoth!

I was rewarded with a really very perplexing work site.

Plastic mammoths and inscrutable signs were a cause of much head scratching. The detour did however deliver a fine cave to explore and escape the heat.

According to the spelunking map helpfully left near the entrance this cave system went, Moria-esque, all the way through the karst formation.

The passages were very narrow requiring a level of squeezing I wasn't comfortable with so I backed up and contented myself with exploring the entrance.

Incredible beehive formations draped from the ceiling lending the cool gloom a hint of the fantastic.

The afternoons cycling took me across the border into Trang but I was still well off the tourist beat and the road was long and quiet. My exhilarating morning wake up had given me a new respect and interest in formicidae of all stripes. With plenty of the day left I took time out to watch an epic conflagration between two implacable foes. 
Red and black ant colonies clash in a running battle extending between two tree trunks.

I was determined to rectify the previous days abject failure and try to camp in one of the Buddhist temple complexes which pepper Thailand. I hadn't corrected my pronunciation but in the light of day I spotted gold glinting and turned into the drive of a Wat in rural Trang.

Away from the money and the people of the bigger cities these provincial compounds nevertheless boast a gaudy grandeur with colourful trappings sprouting from dusty ground. 

A quick chat with the head monk and I was cheerily told that I was welcome to pop my tent where I wished or use one of their raised platforms.

I opted for the later, with just a mosquito net, the better to drink in the soft breeze wafting through the stifling heat. Later the wind would get up necessitating some early morning reconstruction as my make shift brick&string system was shown up for the shoddy job it was.

Before that though I had time for a chat with monks enjoying crafty zen smokes putting lie to my assumptions of perfect eastern asceticism.

With evenings arrival I opted to ride into the small village just south of the Wat in search of food. Spotting some advertising signs I hit upon a wooden platform overlooking coy ponds with a scattering of tables and chairs. No staff were on hand but I was in no rush and so I settled down with a good book to wait for the dinner service.

Ten minutes later a young Thai girl who came over to take my order. With no menu and even less knowledge of Thai I made the international signal for food and drink and smiled happily.

More questions were posed but I was unable to decipher exactly what. Clearly something more was wanted from me so I tried in turn to charade my desire for a menu, to ask whether the restaurant was open and to replace my earlier knife and fork mime with a chop stick one but all to no avail.

My idiocy was both amusing and frustrating so with a laugh she called for help in understanding the disheveled Farang. Soon a crowd of five or so Thai's were standing around smiling trying to communicate with me. I got up to go and reverted to my earlier mime: 'was the restaurant shut?' I asked with my hands. This seemed the best explanation for our current impasse but the response suggested I was wrong and with smiles I was gestured to sit back down.

Things started to get a bit awkward with both sides running out of ways to act out our points of view and we all resorted to head scratching. Deliverance came in the form of a 12 year old girl who scampered over, smart phone in hand, ready with google translate.

The mobile was handed to me and I stared down at the text.

'This is not a restaurant'

Mortified doesn't even cover it. I had essentially plonked myself down at a lovely Thai family's dinner table and demanded sustenance. Arrogant tourist alarm bells clamoured in my ears. Flustered I apologised and went to bolt but all around me laughter rang out and I couldn't help but join in. United in our relief as the mutual incomprehension dissolved we carried on chatting via google translate. The family offered to drive to the nearest town and bring me back a take away at which my mortification returned and red faced explained that this would not be necessary. Now relaxed, the conversation continued more naturally as family's eldest daughter, who could speak English, returned.

My horrific rudeness had been met with beatific friendliness and I was told in no uncertain terms that I would join them for dinner. A wonderful evening was spent learning about Patcharee and Toddy's university aspirations and Dung's careful stewardship of the family business. Such bon homie saw me invited to return the next morning for breakfast and so the children could see my bicycle fully loaded before I pedaled away north.

There is something to be said for a tourist's childlike foolishness and the special vulnerability of a bicycle tourist. Out of your comfort zone the zombie like ease and certainty of commercial transaction is left behind. The result is often surprising, touching and very human. Thailand had greeted this stranger, as every other country has, with warmth, generosity and care.

It is my experience that betting on the kindness of strangers of any race, creed or colour rarely leaves you short changed.

Overview: Day 1 ride 40km
                 Day 2 ride 80km

* routes are made using googlemaps autocomplete. Accuracy may be less than perfect

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