There are, as I have pointed out, a huge number of 7 Eleven stores here. Often they can be found in small dusty villages. To either side may be a shop selling brushes and aluminium step ladders ( It is that combination and no other ), and one where a man is taking apart a 30 year old television. In all its air-conditioned perfection, the 7 Eleven could very well have materialised that very morning, transported from some midwestern town in which it had begun the day.
It and Tesco are about the two most often encountered and familiar world brands. We should understand every last detail of how they work. They should be comfortable and familiar. So, why do we get them wrong every time.
There are never any more than two tills, but we always chose the wrong one. It is not even marginal. Often people who had only just entered the shop as we get to the till, leave five minutes before us. We do not understand the body language that is so obvious to locals. This person wants to look at every pre-pay phone card, brand of whisky, complain about a burger or do his monthly banking here. Locals go to the line of five and are out in seconds. We go to the single person queue and are there for twenty minutes. We are good at this at home!
In small towns we find it almost impossible to tell the difference between washing hung out to dry, and clothes for sale. It all looks the same to us. We get into a town and scan the road for the popular eating places, the ones that are busy. There will be the chaos of mopeds and scooters parked outside. That is the one to aim for. More often than I care to admit, we have ended up outside Yamaha dealerships.
You have your coping strategies when so much is unfamiliar. With food it was Rotis, and tasty unthreatening calorie certainty. They are few and very far between now. I look forward to them more than a child for Christmas.
Just when you start to get on top of things and you have a good idea as to which is a 1,0000 baht note and a 10 we are going to a new country. Just across the river from where I type this is Laos. Dividing us is the Mekong River, a name from the BBC news of the black and white television days of my childhood. It has merged with the moon landings and the assassination of Kennedy in my memory. Never thought in a million years that I would be standing by it. It’s huge.
We ride our bikes through the street fair in Phon Thong. It is 8.00 in the morning and after a 5 hour rest, it is back on its feet again. We pick up the 2367 and straight away feel more at ease in the landscape. We had entered town through bone dry fields and are leaving through a comparative oasis. I can see from the gps that many rivers come together here. The water is channelled from one green field of rice to the next.
I guess that there is some very clever irrigation going on, as lush green fields sit next to brown and scorched stubble. The rivers are bringing enough water for this area to feel fertile. People appear less edgy here and we are back to a dozen ‘ hellos ‘ per kilometre and big Thai smiles.
The day ends hot enough at 38’c, but that feels reasonable after the madness of +40’c. Even so, it is hot enough to spark a dust devil to spin across the flat land. It kicks up dust, charcoaled stubble and spins it into the air. The day ends in the town of Phon Thong. I doubt there is a single entry in Lonely Planet for it. We are quite a curiosity. Far from the beaten track, locals are excited enough to rush and get a camera to photograph us.
We go out for food. Never followed by any less than two dozen pairs of eyes. The young waitress becomes self conscious and clumsy as she serves us. It all feels so friendly. I wonder what country and how far we will need to travel before we can blend in once more.
20’c, it feels wonderfully fresh. Almost too cool in this ultra light top, but not a word of complaint. I have vowed never in my life to moan about being too cold for as long as I live. We stop for bananas. I treat every new bunch with the suspicion that my mother showed for any foreign food. ” Mum, it’s basically the same as cheese on toast with tomatoes, Pizza will not kill you “. I have not forgiven bananas for having seeds in them. My confidence may never return.
A little up the road there is a cock fight. We stop for the spectacle. My great-grandfather was very keen on this. It was his passion after hard days at the pit as was bowls, which perhaps was less of a strange combination than it comes across as now. There are spurs attached but I can not see if there are blades or if this is just a bit of sparring. Either way, the cockerels want to kill.
There are more trees to shade, the road does a few more entertaining twists and turns. It all feels a bit easier today than of late. There are more ‘ Farang ‘ in Loeng Nok Tha than we have seen for ages. Most are German and all have Asian women with them. We are close to the border with Laos here.
We can hear from our hotel room that the wind is getting up. It will be in our faces as we ride the busy roads to Mukdahan and the border. We are on the road very early after a breakfast of banana and biscuits in our room. We have the day beaten before 9 with some quick distance.
I can see the Mekong on the gps screen but as we get near, the landscape gets lumpy and then the road turns without once giving a view of the worlds 12th longest river. We find a hotel that we have looked up online ( Pearl Hotel Balcony – one of the best we have used ) and go for a walk.
Along the river front there is the Indo-Chinese market which is all rather fascinating if you do not look too close at what is for sale on some of the ‘ potion ‘ and medicine stalls. The day is complete with the first Roti seller in several hundred Kilometres. Joy unbounded joy.
We get talking with an Australian and his soon to be Laos bride. She could be from a different species, it looks such an imbalance of grace and beauty. She tells us of their plans. There are lots of hand gestures and mimes to fill in blanks in vocabulary. When she gets to the word ‘ marriage ‘, she does the universal ‘ hand-cuff sign ‘. We wish them well and go for some food. We are celebrating 30,000Km on the road.