Sunday, 24 January 2010

Goodbye Cycle Buddies

You can pick another touring cyclist from a mile off! They are usually the ones who have a rack (for luggage) on the back wheel and big smile on their face when they see you. This morning, while I was having breakfast at my favourite spot in Pai – “Good Life” – I noticed a young Thai boy casually riding along, eyeing off our bicycles. I asked him where he was going and he told me he was going back to Chiang Mai.

Kit, is an 18 year old university student who was on his first ever long distance bike ride. He bought his bike in May last year, through savings he earned at an upmarket Sushi restaurant in Chiang Mai. A few weeks ago he finished his studies and made a split decision to ride his bike for one week around northern Thailand. He bought a cheap tent, some warm clothes and set off, not telling anyone where he was going or what he was doing. His parents assumed he was still studying and his friends thought he was back in his home town for the semester break. That’s the way he liked it!
He told me that on his first day he rode over 100kms from Mae Cham to Mae Hong Song (one of the steepest roads in Thailand), stopping along the way to see caves, canyons and other sites. Often when Chris and I were riding through Thailand, we would skip certain attractions because they were off the beaten path and most likely, up a series of steep hills. But not this kid – he wanted to see it all!

Although quite shy, he obviously wanted to chat to other cyclists about his experience. We invited him to sit down with us and he told us about his dreams to ride into Laos and around Thailand, while I translated. The spirit of adventure radiated from his eyes, and he mentioned that one day he will have enough money to go around the world, like Chris.

Throughout our journey to Pai Straight Up we have met and ridden with some other cyclists who share the same enthusiasm as Kit:

You have already met Gemma (Gems), the girl who rolled out of a palm-oil plantation and into our hearts. Gems has been my gal pal and a great support to me throughout this journey. Having Gemma on the trip also allowed Chris and I some space from one another, which was sometimes needed. Until she met us, Gemma was riding solo through Thailand and Malaysia and at times she continued to go off on her own, which I thought would be impossible for me to do. But since meeting her I have realised that the only fear I had was fear of the unknown and I have learned to value (and even crave) time spent on my own.

On the final leg of our journey from Chiang Mai to Pai, we were joined by two lovely guys . Sawang is a Thai touring cyclist/adventurer who rode from Chiang Mai through Laos, China, Tibet, Nepal to India for 10 months during 2007. He has also done a lot of riding in South East Asia including Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines and Laos. Sawang has a great sense of humour (Poot Len) and I enjoyed chatting to him in Thai about his experiences.

Gunther, a German backpacker who we met at a Christmas party, was planning to see Thailand after finishing an English language training course in Bangkok. Wanting a different kind of travel experience, he hired a bike in Chiang Mai, attached his tent and backpack and joined us on the final leg of our journey to Pai. I was really inspired by his ability to ‘just do it’’ and also amazed that he could get up those mountains after so many cigarettes! He was constantly attached to his English language dictionary and made me realise that there is a lot that I don’t know about my own language. After reaching Pai, Gunther decided to continue on his own around the loop to Mae Hong Song and back to Chiang Mai.

In Chiang Mai we met a Swiss couple who have been cycling for the past 2 years. I felt a strong connection with the lady Mira, who had a very down-to-earth approach to cycling. They don’t make plans, just take it day-by-day and simply live in the wonder of it all. She also gave me some really good tips for China and helped me to rest assured that riding there will be a wonderful experience.

But this morning I said goodbye to a special cycling buddy. Chris has decided to do a 20 day meditation retreat in Pai, which means we are cutting our time together short by about a month.

Chris and I have been friends for almost 10 years, but over the past two months of riding we have come to understand each other on a different level. I am proud of Chris and what he is doing through the Cyclestrongman Expedition. His ride around the world by bicycle is indeed a journey of self-discovery and I am grateful to have had a first-hand glimpse of this journey myself. Thanks to Chris, I now know what I am capable of and am excited to embark on some of my own adventures. I am also grateful to Nick Harrison, my ex-boyfriend and Chris’s friend, who introduced us all those years ago, because without that meeting I would not be sitting here today.

There is a book/movie called Into the Wild about a guy who takes off on his own into the wilderness to find the meaning of life. When I first saw this movie, I thought of my friend Chris who was planning to ride around the world alone and felt scared. On reflection, I can see that even during this trip I had a lot of fears about riding on my own (even if the others were not far ahead), camping on my own – generally being alone. But now I am starting to realize the value of time spent alone and also of time spent with others. This story ends with a quote from the pages of the man’s journal which reads: ‘Happiness is only real when shared’.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Four Seasons in One Day

My day started off like any other – wake up (5:30am), stretching (till 6am), packing/preparing my bike and setting off (6:30am). But today I had mixed feelings.

We had spent the past two nights camping at Pong Duen National Park, a beautiful spot at the end of a very steep track, approx 6.5 km off the main road leading to Pai. The main attraction here was a very unique volcanic geyser which pumps steaming hot water into some beautiful natural hot spring pools. We snuck into our campsite in the dead of the night, in order to escape paying the 200THB entrance fee for foreigners (it’s only 40 THB for Thais) and enjoyed the pools and sauna pretty much to ourselves each evening.

It may have been the fact that I hadn’t had breakfast (anyone who knows me well understands what I am like if I don’t eat in the morning), or it was perhaps the realization that I still had three big mountains to climb before a final 25km of downhill which would lead us into Pai town. Or maybe it was the fact that I was about to embark on the final leg of my journey to Pai Straight Up – a two month, 2500km bicycle ride through 21 provinces in Thailand – one that I am not sure that I ever believed I could do.

I put in my headphones and waited for the shuffle setting to predict which song would stay running in my head for the remainder of the day. It was Crowded House, Four Seasons in One Day, a song that I used to listen to when feeling homesick in Bangkok.

“Four seasons in one day, lying in the depths of your imagination...”

As I left the campsite my bike decided that it was only going to allow me to use 6 out of the 24 gears that I am used to. The boys were already in front of me so there was no time to argue and I set off feeling lucky that I still had the lowest gears to play with, which is fine when climbing mountains. Within minutes I was pushing my bike up a very steep part of the road, dreading what was to come later in the day. But I kept going, alternating between riding and pushing, and eventually reached the main road where I found the others.

“...finding out that everywhere there is comfort there is pain, like four seasons in one day...”

To say I was overjoyed when we stopped for breakfast would be an understatement. Only one mountain down and two more to go, but with food in my belly I couldn’t be happier. Again we started to climb but this time the gods were more generous. The road to Pai is infamous for the number of hairpin turns (762 from Chiang Mai) and we must have encountered most of them in the next two hours of riding. Eventually we reached the summit and enjoyed a short downhill before climbing again. I put my head down, clipped in and kept humming the tune.

“worlds above and worlds four seasons in one day”

On the way up I realized that I was in front of the others, mainly because they were stopping regularly to take photos and video footage of us all going up the mountain. There was a sign saying that it was 1km to the next police box so I knew that there would be a food place nearby. I felt a sense of excitement at the prospect of being the first to arrive at our lunch stop
(this has never happened in two months of riding!). With a burst of energy I cruised along the ridge of the mountain and round the next bend, where I found another hill. As I made my ascent I heard the familiar “click click click” of Chris’s bike as he sidled up beside me, followed closely by the others. “Noooooooo” I screamed (along with another expletive), not knowing exactly why this outburst had occurred. It was not the fact that I was going to be last, or that they were stronger than me – but something inside of me felt disappointed.

“ all the things you can’t explain...four seasons in one day”.

I have tried really hard to keep up with Chris throughout this trip and at times I felt like my slower pace bothered him. He has never said so, nor has he ever given me reason to think that he didn’t think I was up to this trip. It was all in my own head, and I realize now that the only person who ever doubted my ability was me.

When I pulled up, I watched as the magic words come out of the policeman’s mouth in slow motion “it’s all downhill from here”. Later, as I made the 25km descent, I had a revelation. The tune ringing in my head was my reality. I am a mixture of emotions, up, down, up, down, like four seasons in one day. I cried and when I reached the bottom I stopped beside Chris and apologised. We shared a few moments to reflect on the adventure, and how much I had improved over the past two months. We decided to ride the last 3kms into town together.

“Only one step four seasons in one day.

Friday, 15 January 2010

It started with a smile...

Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’. When I first came here on holiday in 2005, I wanted to know why this was so. I tested it out - smiling at street sellers, hotel attendants, people jogging in the park, people on the skytrain, people in the shops - and every time I smiled at someone I was guaranteed to get a beautiful energetic response. I was delighted to walk around and share fleeting moments with people from all walks of life, through the simple act of smiling.

I once tried this exercise in Sydney. I walked from Darling Harbour to Hyde Park (approximately 6 blocks), trying to smile at as many people as possible. What happened was completely the opposite. Some people saw my smile and assumed that I was looking at someone else - turning around to see if there was someone walking behind them who I recognised. Others simply kept walking (pretending not to see) and some looked at me like I was wearing a sign that said 'freak'. As disheartening as it was, I found it funny and remember laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all.

But what's in a Thai smile? And why do Thai people smile so much?

There are many different characteristics which define the smile. Here are a select few that I have encountered when riding a bicycle through Thailand's countryside:

1. Sometimes people smile at you instead of talking. Initially there is no common language, so a smile says 'you are welcome'. Once they know that I speak Thai, the smile becomes wider, more natural and shows a sense of relief.

2. Thai people smile when they feel shy. They may want to talk to you, but when you approach them or start to speak to them, they simply smile.

3. Foreigners are always a subject of interest to Thai people, especially when they are doing strange things like riding a bicycle up a steep mountain. Another smile I regularly encounter is one of hilarity, laughing through their smile at the 'silly farang’ (foreigner).

4. Sometimes people look at you with interest or intrigue. They may wonder what you are doing here, where you have come from, why and how? The look is initially one of query but as soon as you break that gaze with a smile, you get an even bigger one back. These smiles stay with you for hours and are often enough to get me up the next mountain!

Thailand really is the 'Land of Smiles' - a place where I have learned to smile more often, more genuinely, for smiling's sake.

Monday, 4 January 2010

The Wat Tour of Thailand

After a full day’s ride we were pleased to roll over the 100km mark and straight into a wat in Ban Tham Nam Bang. As per usual, I asked to see the head monk and was told that I could find him in the cave on the top of the hill. Despite my wobbly legs, I managed to climb the stairs into the main shrine but the only figure that greeted me was Buddha himself.

The cave was vast with several storage and sleeping rooms built into the walls and as I lingered in this space it felt as though I was an intruder in someone’s home. Eventually I found the monk, drinking a cup of tea and reading a book, and when he looked up I could see that he was thinking "Farang?!?". He said we were welcome to sleep in the cave, or the sala if we were scared - obviously he could read me aswell, because I chose the sala.

Each wat we have stayed in has offered a unique and rewarding experience. So far, monks in Thailand have been extremely hospitable and let us stay in their wats for free - whether it be in a cave, the forest, overlooking a nice beach or in the middle of a big city. We are grateful when offered a room (once with air-conditioning and internet access!), but are just as happy with a dry space under a temple building or sala.

Every day Thai monks wander the streets barefoot, collecting food which is given by local people wishing to gain merit. Occasionally they have offered us food which has been donated to them during this morning alms collection. At first, I was very humbled but at the same time worried that they didn’t have enough food. On subsequent occasions I realized that they have to encourage people from the village to come and eat with them so the excess food does not go to waste.

Some monks have been eager to chat with us about the Dhamma or Buddhist practices. One particular monk made quite the impression when he used loud noises and hand movements to explain his theory about people sending rockets through underground tunnels to cause natural disasters such as the tsunami. Chris and I did not want to offend, but had trouble containing our laughter.

Another memorable experience was when Gemma and I were taken to Wat Suvarnapoom (Lopburi province) to meet Ajarn Songsom, a monk who teaches “Freestyle” Dhamma. He told us to simply listen and the message and practice would be ‘up to you’. He was right, especially because his teachings were in Thai and I think my translations were way off!
Overall, the wat has become a place of refuge that we seek out at the end of a long day and helps to make cycling through Thailand a very cheap and satisfying experience, not to mention entertaining.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Ups, downs and rounds and rounds

We are currently riding through Petchabun province, which known as the "Swiss Alps of Thailand". I chose to go this way as it was somewhere I have never been before, but tried to ignore the fact that there would be hills to climb.

It may sound deep, but riding a bicycle is a lot like life - well a lot like my life so far. You have to take the ups with the downs, and in fact, with every uphill you encounter - you learn that it wasn't the incline, the speed of the wind behind you or the breakfast you ate which got you over the top - it was all you.

I used to hate riding up hills. Looking back on Day 1, I can't believe that I pushed my bicycle for the most part of one sticky, hot day in Penang, cursing most of the way up and threatening to turn back if it got any worse. There was one hill in the south of Thailand where I literally waited at the bottom for a tuk tuk to come along and pull me up - but it never arrived.

Some days are definitely harder than others. Sometimes it can be a simple thing like riding past a power station which is spewing black smoke into the atmosphere which sucks my energy away again. Riding on the freeway aslo sucks but I have learnt that instead of paying attention to the cars, trucks and motorcycles on my right, to focus on the green and open on my left, because the cars have a right to be there, and so do I.

Yesterday I had a breakthrough - a day where I enjoyed going up as much as I did going down. And when the hills kept coming I just kept peddling, enjoying the downs and using them to help me get back up. I even found myself laughing in the face of each and every new hill.
My riding has definitely gone from strength to strength in the last few legs, but it is my mind which is coping better than ever before. Every day I wake, I stretch, I ride, I eat, I ride, I stretch, I sleep and then I wake up, happy to do it all over again the next day.