When you travel, you actually experience three places. They are exactly the same place on the map but although they are closely related, all differ. Although our planning and choice of route is sketchy at the best of times, there is an expectation of what is ahead. It may be just 10 minutes looking at Google, but we do have an image in mind. The place you imagined is changed by what you see when you get there. This is down to luck on the day. You can turn left, when just to the right there was something staggeringly wonderful.
Experience of a place is also down to who you meet, and they have a big influence on the third part of this trinity of experience, the memory of a place. If I was not feeling too charitable, I could describe the last few hundred kilometres as boring, and on busy roads. Every day has been a race against the arc of the sun and the full hammer blow of midday heat.
There have been straight roads that disappeared into a smudge of heat haze, where we almost lost it. Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer, got in our heads and stayed there. It had started before Christmas, which is fine, harmless even. But it is till with us. It had been a relief at first, we have had 10 months of ‘ Were going on a Bear hunt ‘ by Michael Rosen. This is now banned. Just the first line and you know the thing will be with you for the rest of the day. Straight roads are hard on the head.
Now you see, I have 29 photos on the screen in front of me to tell the story of our last few days. I did not much like it at the time, but it is the memory of the people that we met that this time perked up a boring bit. I cursed the heat and the lack of even a single fluffy cloud to provide shade, but the 29 photos have happy memories. Of course I am saying that now, you should have heard me swear at the time.
We passed through a big area of Sugar Cane. Harvest in full swing in fields to left and right. It is an appallingly intensive crop from muscle power to tractor diesel. Harvested by hand, it is carried to the processing plant. We are sharing the road with dozens of trucks, brimmed with cane. I have no idea at the economics of growing the stuff, but how far you are hauling it must be a big part of the costs. Every time there is a rise in the road, the trucks send out a diesel belch of smoke. I start wondering if it all makes economic sense. If we start turning this into Bio fuel it looks as if it would just about cover the harvest.
We get into Chai Badan, the biggest town for a few days. We pick up the 205, a big soulless dual carriageway and the tarmac throws the heat back up at us. 37′c at noon, and an hour later it is 40′c. Thank goodness we do not have the humidity that we had back in Malaysia. We push on. It is like riding a bike just in front of an open oven that has been turned up to ‘ Yorkshire Pudding ‘. You feel the heat in your nostrils in the same way that you get that nip there from intense cold. It gets to 42′c, equalling our hottest ever record for the trip. There is no shade at all.
The small town of Lam Sonthi. We start looking for a hotel. The gps has a hotel showing, but it is 12Km down a dead-end road, so we start asking around. We a sent to a house, a second house and then a third and it is not looking too good. The third is part of a restaurant, which is good. Then we get introduced to the bundle of energy and enthusiasm that is the diminutive figure of ‘ Cap ‘. Her family own the place, and of course we can stay. They spend the next hour and a half ‘ just tidying up ‘ a place for us. It is a special encounter for us. Fed, watered and rested we are back on the road next morning.
We know we have a long climb and it does not take a genius to know it will be stinking hot. We are going to gain just short of 300m in height, from one plain to the next.. They set fire to the crop, to burn off the leaves of the cane and make it easier to harvest. The air is full of candy floss smelling smoke from the processing plants and it all mixes into a horizon blurring brew. The rising sun catches it, turning it purple and pink. If your life depended on it you could not point to where the sky ends and the land begins.
It is 27′c, which is fine enough. We are looking for the huddle of shrines that will give an indication we have got to the top. False summit and another, and each kick up is followed by a down hill that throws away gained height. Cars and trucks are sounding their horns, and up on a rise is a big shrine complex. Horns sound as they pass as a mark of respect. The rest of the day is a race against the full heat of afternoon. We have done 70Km by noon and retreat to a hotel. The room is hot and the aircon is struggling to bring it down to 25′c. Back home we call that a heater. It whines like a vacuum cleaner full of dog hairs.
We are out before it is fully light. We join the 201 and the harvest has got up before us. Here they use what must be a two-stroke powered vehicle. Part art work, part fairground ride and all indispensable agricultural implement. These trucks are all brimmed with sugar cane and driven by happy but red eyed workers. We had heard them overnight, pup, pup, pupping their way from field to processor. They are lit up like houses on a council estates at Christmas.
We celebrate thirty kilometres before nine with a cup of unbelievably bad coffee. We keep on falling for these western style coffee shops. Free WiFi, aircon and the promise of an expert brew. They are expensive and bold ventures here and a big treat for us. Why they get the actual coffee making so wrong is baffling. A vending machine would do a better job.
We are on a plateau now. You could point at the landscape and call it African and I would believe you. We did not expect this in Thailand. The wet season has not been wet enough here and it shows. Rivers that should be running high are trickles and mud. Again, we get 70Km done and then take a hotel. It is the only way to nibble away at the distance.
7.00 am and on the road. We drop into a dip in which all the cool air has gathered overnight. It is several degrees cooler and an absolute joy. We turn East onto the 229, now full into the rising sun. This is the first time in a while that we have been off dual carriageways. Straight away we are amongst happy waving people. ‘ Hello ‘, ‘ Good Morning ‘, we have missed this. Again the land is blotting paper dry here. Living-room sized fields with last years stubble and a raised bank separating them. I guess that he bank should be holding in water. It is hard to tell, but it does not look right. A little further on and there are signs of irrigation and life, and a crop has been sown.
Head down we again race against the heat. A new record is set just as we end the day, 43′c!. The town of Ban Phai is just the right size for us and we get there before noon. We let the heat drop and then go for a walk around. We find something to eat and then stumble across Inder. There was no way he was going to let us pass without inviting us in. He is 73, speaks half a dozen languages and a handful of local dialects. He arrived here as a refugee from Pakistan as India was torn apart following independence. He had the clothes on his back and his intelligence. He greets us on the street, a crown made from polystyrene, with flowers pushed into it. LOVE, a crown ready for valentine’s day.
He worked as a skilled mechanic and plant manager, but always had a passion for the art he produced. He picks stuff up and gives them a new life and a place in his home. Inder’s wife runs the store that they now own and he puts time into his art. There is a gilt frame into which he slots A3 prints of clouds. ‘ I like to have a cloud a day ‘. There has not been a single cloud for a few days now, but he has some spare. Old tables become canvases for portraits of the King, and a curious stone is given teeth and becomes the head of a dinosaur ( it is too heavy and is given sandals with glitter to keep it upright ). The house is full of his creations – fantasy animals made with fruits and snake skins framed and hung on the wall. Seeds are combed into faces and given character with individual beards and moustache.
I ask him if he has ever heard of the idea of ‘ outsider art ‘. Of course he has not, which is how it should be. He is an absolute treasure, and gift to any documentary film maker that would care to stumble across him. ” We once had a massive snake here, just behind where my wife sits at the till “. When the authorities came to catch it a crowd formed. ” Four metres it was and black. We were so lucky and every one wanted to know the house number for that days lottery “.
The next day starts and ends on highway 23. We get a glimpse into a persons life, and a few hundred metres latter another. A man is casting a net in the most unpromising small puddle of muddy water. I am not sure that even he thinks it is worth his effort, Time and again I see this. I am not sure they would believe me if I told them how much people pay to fish on the Salmon rivers back home in Scotland. Maha Sarakham, a sizeable town and a good place for a rest day after nine consecutive days of pedaling.