Monday, 16 October 2017

ISAN FARM NE THAILAND

It should be no surprise to anybody (especially no surprise to me) that I am on my way again. In the past year and a half (since I had met Pannee here in Thailand) I have had to leave the country every 2 months to get a new Thai visa in a neighbouring country. Pannee thinks I am going on a "solo holiday", but I do go on excusions of 1 to 2 months at a time (see previous posts). Then I am happy to return to what has become my "home" here in Isan (general name for NE Thailand). Now I am off via cental and southern Thailand towards Malaysia (quite a long way, especially with a sort-of improvised bicycle).
During this time that I have been on the farm I have not done much. Mostly I just relaxed after a bike trip, but I did do a few things. I put in a kitchen sink, washbasin in bathromm, did some plumbing adjustments, and painted inside and out (see pics of before and after at back of house). Siblings and parents all have their own house here on the farm, even if some of them don't live here anymore. These pics are of Pannee's house.
I have put some pics of "before" and "after" on this post. There are only 2 seasons in the region, the DRY season and the RAINY season. This is the farm dam early this year in the dry season, and how it looks now towards the end of the rainy season. Ban Trakan village is about 1 km away, and beyond that is a big river where I have also done some fishing. The rice is growing well, and should be harvested within the next month. And next month, especially in December and January, the tourists will be flocking in to Bangkok again, and going to all the many other places where tourists flock around Thailand.
This is another before and after comparison. Pannee has 2 sons. Mark goes to his high school by motorbike and does pretty much his own thing. Patrick is 7 years old, and follows me around and tries to do whatever I do. His primary school is outside of the village, and very conveniently it is right next door to the farm. He has a ravenous appetite which seems to have led to a noticeable growth in his size since I first met him.
Initially I was not particularly impressed by Thai food, but it has grown on me. STICKY RICE is a staple here in Isan (and also in close neighbouring Laos). Another favourite here is PAPAYA SALAD, a very spicy concoction based on shavings of green papaya (I like eating it until my eyes start watering and my nose runs). The fruit in pic is referred to locally as NOYNA, has a lifespan of about 1 week on the tree, and is quite similar to another fruit which is generally known as "soursop". They also grow banana, mango, and cassava here on the farm.
Pannee's Mama and Papa are becoming old (the way all of us will become if we can keep on living). Papa has packed up the shop, and now he is relaxing even more, if that is possible. They live in the oldest "house" on the property, which is an ancient stilted wooden shack. Mama still prepares meals in the traditional way, mostly on a charcoal fire, and probably in the way she has done it all her life.
And then there is the farm, which I have come to consider as "home". They farm mainly with rice around here, as any Thai person will become rather confused if they do not have a rice-based meal 3 times per day. There are some farm animals around here. There are pigs, ducks, cows, chickens, and 3 dogs, (I call the one in the pic Brakenjan but apparently his real name is Phon).
Here on the farm the only vehicles are farming implements (big and small tractor), and old motorbike with cargo sidecar, small motorbikes, and bicycles. With the motorbike to the bus stop is 10 km of rolling gravel country lane. From there one can take a rickety bus to Ubon Ratchathani city (40 km), or a pickup truck "bus" the other way to Amphoe Trakan town (20 km). However, I prefer to cycle to town for grocery shopping.
As I have already said, I don't do much around here on the farm. I spend quite a bit of time on my computer (which I normally don't carry with me on the bike - I carry more than enough weight). We get wi-fi from Pannee's sister's house next door. I have been suffering from an ear infection for some time now, so I make myself look silly by pulling a buff over my head when I sleep.
Pannee also has to leave the farm by the end of this month, returning to her job in Bangkok. Tomorrow I hit the road with mixed feelings, unsure when/if I will be back again.
I have cycled a bit more around here in Isan, to town with bags on for shopping and so forth. Total distance cycled since March 2007 is 146 849 km. I am amazed that Old Saartjie (my bike) still has the legs to do this thing.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

THE RUN TO LAOS (AGAIN)

And so the time had come for me to make a hurried exit from Thailand once again, as my 2-month visa was about to expire. From the farm where I had been since returning from my previous excursion, it took me 7 days to cross the border on the day that my visa expired. This time I took the most direct route from Ubon province to the Nong Khai border, where I crossed the Mekong river to Laos, and the capital Vientianne. As before, the only time on this trip when I did not sleep in my tent was the couple of days when I was organizing a new Thai visa, and I stayed in the same cheap establishment as before. On my return trip I took the route from Vientianne through Laos to Pakse city in the south of the country.
As I have been doing for some time now, when I am on the road I camp mostly at the Buddhist temples. In these places there is no chance of lying in till late in the mornings. The monks rise early to start their activities, and they are signaled by the gong and drum, which is often as early a 4 am.
I have traveled this route through Laos before, but there is something I failed to notice in the past. In Vientianne one of the other guests drew my attention to a bridge along the route which was built by the Soviet Union and dedicated to the first human astraunaut, Juri Gagarin. When I got to that bridge I could see why I had missed it, as the commemorative plaques are written in Laos and Russian.
The monks usually go out in the morning to collect alms from the community. In addition to that, people come to the temple with breakfast for the monks, and these people have their own meal there once the monks are done. Often they will invite me to eat with them, or otherwise give me sticky rice and other foods to take along with me. Sometimes they give me too much food to eat at once, things such as meat dishes and so forth. I must have kept some of that foodstuff too long in the bags on the hot road, and I was violently ill for a couple of days (you may notice if you look at the distances which I managed to cycle at times).
I spent some time in the Pakse area, undecided as to whether to go further south to Cambodia again. I did not have the funds for the Cambodia visa, or for traveling through there for the time it would take to get back to Thailand. My sister did send me money again, but I decided to take the direct route from Pakse back to Thailand as I already had the new Thai visa. While in that area I did venture out on some roads where I had not been before, such as the route to Champasak on the western banks of the Mekong. I also took a few pictures around the huge seemingly chaotic Pakse market (there are many items which you are unlikely to find at Western markets, such as goose eggs, banana flowers, and green papaya).
While in Pakse area I also stayed at the famous Watt Luang, which is also quite a big monastery. I have stayed there before, and they give me a camping spot in a beautiful setting overlooking the river. I feel a bit guilty staying there, as it is in the touristy area with hostels, hotels, and western food all around (but in my defence, I did not have money for that sort of thing).
Then I headed for the Thai border, and crossed after a couple of days. Khong Chiam is on the Thai side of the Mekong, and there I camped with the Marine Police as before. They are at the point where boats come over from the Laos side, so I guess their job is to control WHO- and WHAT comes off those boats. The police have a nice new office, so I camp at their little disused kiosk next door (I use their wi-fi, and fancy toilets, and even get hot and cold water from their dispenser inside).
From Khong Chiam I can usually make it in a day’s cycling back to Pannee and the farm. However, on this day it was raining continuously, and by mid-afternoon the road was becoming flooded and darkness had set in. I was directed to a temple in the area, but in my struggle to find it I went off the road and temporarily lost Old Saartjie (my bike) beneath the waves. Nobody was out on the road anymore, but luckily a “Good Samaritan” turned up on a motorbike and guided me to the nearest Watt. In the water I had lost the slip-on sandals with which I cycle nowadays, and the next morning there was a pair of takkies (and socks!) for me outside the tent.
So now I am back on the farm in Eastern Thailand again. I am somewhat surprised that my bike held up for this trip. In fact, I did not even have a single puncture. The only mishap was a broken spoke (as usual on the cassette side of the back wheel!). I stopped early at a temple that day to repair it, which provided great entertainment for the old resident monk as he sat and watched me at work (he even gave me a tub of laundry powder to clean my hands afterwards).
Distances cycled on this trip through Thailand and Laos have been as follows:- Nam Praek (Thailand) 111 km; Yasothon district 79 km; Ban Bo 75 km; Kham Pla 69 km; Non Sa-At 85 km; Na Kha 73 km; Vientianne (Laos) 65 km; Vientianne city 32 km; Thang Khong 46 km; Sisomxai 68 km; Sensamlan 74 km; Vieng Kham 84 km; Thang Bengh 75 km; Thakek 78 km; Ban Dang Nua 71 km; Seno 59 km; Savannakett district 42 km; Paksong 41 km; Ban Phonxai 43 km; Khong Xeng Don 75 km; Pakse 52 km; Huay Lucy district 32 km; Watt Luang 15 km; Champasak 40 km; Pakse 49 km; Veng Tao Rd 26 km; Khong Chiam (Thailand) 65 km; Ubon village 60 km; Ban Trakan (farm) 31 km. The total distance which I have cycled since leaving Cape Town in 2007 is 146 751 km.

Monday, 21 August 2017

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

I am currently on the bike, will update when I have the opportunity. Now Thailand, and Laos. Additional 165 km, cycling to Amphoe Trakan with bags for shopping, and so forth.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

SE ASIAN STRUGGLES

So, after 2 months I am back on the farm in Eastern Thailand. In this time I cycled through parts of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. This was not an easy trip, broken bike, and some health problems as well. So now I am relaxing for a while.
I had been relaxing with Pannee on the farm for about a month, fattening up after a lengthy visa run to Laos. I left the farm in early May, headed for the far SE corner of Thailand where I would cross into Cambodia at the Hat Lek border. Although it was the rainy season, the first few days were scorching hot and I got rather sunburnt. It was then that I started to develop a heat rash which became increasingly uncomfortable as the weeks wore on. I hardly ever saw another touring cyclist as soon there was heavy rain day and night. As before, I mostly stayed at the temples, so I usually had good cover during the night.
In Thailand there are plenty of covered bus stops, and I frequently sheltered there from the sun and the rain. As before, I mostly used the PTT petrol stations for toilet stops, and wi-fi in Thailand has been mostly from the Amazon coffee shops at those places. In Cambodia some of the more fancy petrol stations had wi-fi (but those are only on some of the main roads). In Laos I usually ask at the cell phone shops for wi-fi. I did not take my computer with me this time, but my phone is sufficient for e-mail and so forth. I also have GPS maps on the phone (and I still got lost once or twice because I don't want to get the phone wet in the frequent rain).
In this part of the world amulets are popular good luck charms, and this collection belonged to a senior monk at one of the temples where I stayed.
There is all sorts of fruit in this region of which I do not even know the names. The hairy ones in the picture are not too different from a lychee.
As usual I had hit the road with no money, and only a little food. After only a couple of days, still in Eastern Thailand close to Surin, I had a puncture. I seldom suffer punctures, as I have been using good tyre liners for the past few years. Anyway, it was an awkward puncture, and I had to fit the spare tube (which was of poor quality and soon I had a blow-out). I did my best to repair the original puncture, and hoped for the best. The following morning I had to try more repairs, with some pumping along the way, but to no avail. Stranded in a rural area with no more spare tube, I waited for about an hour before a farmer gave me a ride in his truck to a bike shop in the next village. I explained to the bike shop owner that I had no money, but he fitted a new tube for me, and insisted that I take a spare tube along as well!
Then I was into Cambodia where I got a bit of a surprise at the border. The visa fee was substantially more than I had thought it to be, but once I had handed over the cash the officials there were quite happy to let me into their country. I soon took a wrong turn, and then my bike chain broke in the rain. After pushing for a while I found a nice beach with cover where I could repair the damage.
At a dead-end fishing village I found a nice temple to camp, and the 3 jokers in the picture worked at that temple. They kept me entertained and even organised breakfast for me the following morning.
Once I had returned to my intended route in Cambodia, I was soon in the hills. There were few villages and I stayed at a police check point in a forested area where I arrived in the pouring rain. I was pleased that they let me stay, as I had a dry camp where I could prepare my dinner. They also had a toilet and a wash room where I could clean myself up a bit.
So far things were going fine. However, in a deserted area the rear derailleur on my bike malfunctioned and got caught in the spokes (derailleur snapped off, chain destroyed, and one of the spokes was ripped clean out of the rim). Pouring rain, with no reasonable place to try and do repairs, I pushed the bike through the hills for hours before I found a village temple where I could assess the damage. This is the type of village where foreigners are only seen passing by in a bus. With nothing like a bike shop, I was lucky that a local policeman brought me an old (unsuitable) derailleur which lasted 2 days before it completely broke apart.
I had to improvise and "fixed" the bike so that I could carry on without gears (not so easy with a very heavy bike). So I carried on very slowly towards the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, which was still a couple of hundred kilometres distant. Once again my sister Olga helped me out, and I found a derailleur which is also not completely suitable, but certainly better than nothing. By that time I also had to replace both tyres (riding at the side of those busy roads had badly damaged my paved road tyres).
Luckily in Phnom Penh I found a nice temple where I could camp out of the way in front of a tomb and next to a big lake. I stayed there for 2 days to work on the bike, and I also had a couple of swims in the lake.
In addition to the by now very uncomfortable rash, and the bike problems, I had also developed an ailment which made it rather painful to bend my knees and elbows. This became more of a problem later, and once I reached Pakse city in Laos I had deciced to take a bus from there to Vientianne (besides, I had been on that road a couple of times already in this year). The reason for going to Vientianne in Laos was so that I could apply for a new 2-month Thai visa there. I had planned to get that visa in Phnom Penh, but the Thai visa office there had other ideas, and wanted me to show air tickets in and out of Thailand, as well as proof of finances!
My bike problems were not over either. Due to the conditions the wheel bearings started making disconcerting sounds so I had to replace those as well. Fortunately I was carrying the necessary parts and materials.
So I had to pay for a visa on arrival at the Laos border (including some unofficial fees for the exit and entry stamps).
After I got the new Thai visa in Vientianne (Laos capital), I headed back across the Mekong river to Thailand. One week later I arrived back on the farm in Ubon, Eastern Thailand, where Pannee had returned to meet me. I felt I need a bit of a break, and I am really enjoying the luxury of relaxation. I also need to do plenty of work on my worn-out overworked bicycle (Old Saartjie).
Thanks again to Olga for all the encouragement and finances she has helped me with. She also placed an article in "The Edge" (local newspaper in Sedgefield, South Africa) mentioning my plight and my ageing bike. Thanks to those people who made a donation, it is not enough for a new bike but that money is very welcome, as I need some expensive spare parts to repair Old Saartjie (my bike).
Distances cycled on this 2-month trip through Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos have been as follows:- Sisaket 89 km; Surin 90 km; Prasat 92 km; Pa Knam 93 km; Ta Praya 75 km; Ban Chak 69 km; Wang Mai 67 km; Sao Din 45 km; Soi Dao 72 km; Chanthaburi 87 km; Khlung 77 km; Laem Ngop 63 km; Ban Tha Prik 62 km; Ban Khlong Son 58 km; and Hat Lek 74 km (cross border from Thailand to Cambodia). Continue through Cambodia:- Mondol Seima 22 km; Kroh Koh Kong 37 km; Tatai Forest 63 km; Din Ling 39 km; Junction 46 km; Kampong Pheu 40 km; Economic zone 41 km; Phnom Penh 41 km; Ponhuea Lueu 81 km; Cheung Prey 58 km; Kampong Cham 76 km; Trong Kmumn 63 km; Dambae 38 km; Kratie 64 km; Village Vat 65 km; Stung Treng 68 km; and border town 78 km (cross from Cambodia to Laos). Continue in Laos:- Muang Khong 50 km; Tapho 51 km; Muehi 55 km; Pavina 42 km; Huay Lucy 39 km; Pakse 20 km; Around Pakse 10 km; Vientianne (+ bus) 30 km; Around city 35 km; and Mekong bridge 22 km (cross from Laos to Thailand). Continue in Thailand:- Ban Na Kha 45 km; Ban Non Sa-at 77 km; Ban Kham Charoen 81 km; Roi Et 93 km; Ban Kilomet Sam 90 km; Ban Kong Chai 85 km; and Ban Trakan farm 72 km. The total distance which I have cycled so far is 144 871 km.