Saturday, 8 April 2017

WAT......WAT.......WHAT? (THE TEMPLE RUN)

And so it was time for me to flee from Thailand again, due to my regular 2 month visa expiry. I had been on my friends farm in Eastern Thailand for some time, so I guess I had to move on at some stage. Also, I was keeping Pannee out of her work in Bangkok, so she had to return to "the grindstone".
So I hopped on Old Saartjie (my bicycle) and headed for the Laos border. This time I crossed the Mekong from Mukdahan to Savannaket in Laos. The Thai officials at the check-point would not allow me on a bicycle to cross the big bridge, so I unloaded Old Saartjie right there and waited, hoping for a lift from a truck or such vehicle. After about 30 minutes an officer approached me and said it was OK, I could cross (so I had to pack up again, and that is quite a mission!).
It took me a few days of cycling from the farm in Eastern Thailand to the city of Mukdahan, on the Mekong river. I arrived there rather late in the day, so I camped in one of the large spectacular temples right on the riverfront. I had seen Mukdahan from the opposite side of the river before, but I had never been there, and I found it to be a pleasant city and larger than I had thought.
Amongst travelers this trip to Laos is termed a "Visa Run". However, to be fair to the Buddhist temples in both Thailand and Laos, I should refer to it as the "Temple Run". The temples (called a WAT in Thai and Laos) were my safe haven at the end of the day.
Ihis time I was on the road for 5 weeks, and only on 3 occasions did I NOT camp in a Wat. In Vientiane I had to wait for the new Thai visa, so I stayed 2 nights in the cheapest hotel I know about in that city. In a tribal district in Laos people thought it may not be safe for me to camp at the temple, so I camped in their community hall with about 5 local men acting as my security guards for the night. And, at Khong Chiam back in Thailand I camped under a verandah at the marine police, with the best view of the river.
As usual I had very little money. Again I tried "barking up a few trees", hoping a "penny will drop". And as has happened so often in the past, my sister came to my rescue (thanks Olga!).
The temples have been wonderful places for me to stay. Firstly, in both Thailand and Laos there is hardly ever more than a few k's between temples which are usually clearly visible and accessible from the main roads (so in the late afternoon I can push on a bit to the next temple if I so wish). I always had camping under cover (in case of rain), and these buildings usually have open sides, allowing me to breathe in that hot and humid climate (often even a ceiling fan). There is always electricity, the place is lit up at night, I can charge batteries and even use my cooker element for making soup, coffee, noodles, etc.
The Wats also have plenty of toilets and washing facilities (for myself and my clothes). The monks often give me foodstuffs such as cakes, noodles, sweets, coffee, and cans of fish. If they see that I want to rinse my clothes they will also give me laundry powder (and toothbrush, paste, soap and shampoo - I wonder about the impression which I presented to them!).
Many times I was invited to breakfast, and sticky rice has become a favorite of mine (an important staple in these parts). I have never stayed at any Wat more than once, as I think that would be an abuse of their hospitality. Giving a safe haven to travelers is part of their service to the community.
Along the way I met various other foreign travelers. Cyclists I have mostly met riding in the opposite direction to me (we usually stop and share stories). And, as usual, the Laos capital (Vientiane) is teeming with foreigners, especially the cheapest accommodation. It has also become popular for backpackers to rent a schooter and head through Southern Laos to the so-called 4000 Islands in the Mekong river close to the Cambodia border.
So that is where I headed after obtaining a new 60-day Thai visa. I was having wild dreams of some money coming my way in time to buy a visa at the border and ride through Cambodia again, but that was not to be. I had to back-track a couple of days and cross from Pakse city West to the Thai border. I still had dreams of making a dash for Cambodia after I received more money (thanks Olga, again!), but a few things changed my mind.
Firstly, I had 2 punctures late in the day (over-used tubes on both wheels) which had to be repaired as I had run out of spares. So I had to return to Pakse city for spare tubes. And secondly, when I was taking down my tent in the Wat the following morning I was stung on the foot by a particularly venomous scorpion (a week later and I am still having trouble with that foot). Interesting, I looked for water to check where the leaks were in the punctured tubes, and at the back of a small restaurant I found 2 ladies cleaning veg in big basins of water. No problem - I was told to simply submerse the tubes in the water with the vegetables!
On this trip I have never been far from the Mekong river, and it's obvious influence on the way people live their lives.
So TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY, and fortunately I have good company. I am back on the farm in Ubon Thailand, and Pannee has returned from Bangkok to be with me for the time that I may spend here before I hit the road again. I need to do some serious work on my bike, anyway.
Distances cycled since previously posted are as follows:- Amphoe 47 km; District Wat 66 km; Junction village 89 km; Mukdahan 77 km; Seno District (Laos) 57 km; District 27 village 91 km; Ban (?) 84 km; Namkhon 97 km; Pattani 83 km; Poutkon 95 km; Thabok district 66 km; Vientiane North 61 km; Vientiane West 44 km; Vientiane suburbs 57 km; Vientiane city area 33 km; Around city area 32 km; and E Vientiane 18 km. The above is for the trip from E Thailand to Vientiane (Laos capital city).
The following regards the trip from Vientiane through Southern Laos to the Cambodia border, and eventually back into Thailand. Route thirteen 39 km; Thabok 88 km; Paxan 121 km; Namsang 104 km; Thangbeng 92 km; Ban Nadon 87 km; Seno 116 km; Pattani 73 km; Na Dau Kou 98 km; Pakse 114 km; Huay Phay 83 km; Moeang Khong 99 km; Thapho 79 km; Huay Lucy 102 km; Pakse district 51 km; Viet bdr rte 112 km; Khong Chiam (Thailand) 77 km; Mekong loop (3 day) 234 km; and Ubon farm 72 km.
The distance cycled on this 5-week section of my journey (visa run / temple run / or call it what you so wish) is 2938 km. The total distance cycled is 141 851 km. And oh, I've just remembered, it is ten years since I hit the road from Cape Town (27 March 2007). I think I lived a relatively comfortable life before that date, and it was my decision to become a "homeless vagrant on a bicycle".

Monday, 27 February 2017

MOVING ON

Tomorrow I will be moving along. My current Thai visa is about to expire. I am not taking my computer with me, so I will update this blog at some future stage.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

STILL IN THAILAND

Here I am, still in Thailand. In fact I was supposed to be back in Florida, USA, by mid-December, but that was not to be. So I will start off more or less where I left off in my previous post. Apologies for the big time lapse since my previous post. Things have happened since then, but not much in the way of cycling. I have mostly recovered from my injuries sustained when I had the accident, but if I sit for a long time, or cycle continuously for a couple of days, then I do feel some discomfort in my hip.
I am back on the farm in Eastern Thailand. I have not just been lazing around (although after the accident I just lay around here recovering from injury). Since I first came to the farm I have fitted a kitchen sink, a wash basin in the bathroom, and I have painted the interior of the kitchen and the bathroom. I have also been doing a bit of weeding and gardening around the house, and have fitted electrical outlets, taps, door locks, etc. When I go to Amphoe Trakan town 21 km away I usually cycle there so that I can pack groceries and things on my bike. When we went to town for the paint, Pannee took her mother's old gearless bike and cycled with me all the way (I ended up riding back with a 25 litre bucket of paint balanced on my back rack - literally a case of "the tail wagging the dog").
It was time for me to go to Florida, USA, again, and as ususl Gabriele of Paradise Farms paid for my ticket. At the airport in Bangkok I checked in my boxed bike and bag, but I did not notice that they changed the boarding time. Also, the boarding pass was not in my name, so after trying to sort out the problem I missed my boarding time. I was taken back through immigration, and was surprised to find my checked baggage still in the oversized baggage department (I suspect that the flight was overbooked, and I was conveniently the fall guy). I tried to get another ticket, but for the next few weeks all those flights were fully booked. Gabriele did get me another ticket at the end of December, but I was required to leave the airport in Europe and re-check my baggage, so I needed an EU visa which I cannot get in Thailand (this time she lost most of the ticket money, as some of the airlines involved do not give cancellation re-funds). So that is the reason why I am still in Thailand.
After my missed flight incident, I was at a loss regarding what to do next. It was too costly to remain in Bangkok, so Pannee and I returned to her farm in Ubon, Eastern Thailand. Thai people are mostly Buddhist and do not celebrate Xmas (they don't seem to know much about Xmas at all). So I bought a Xmas present for the people on the farm, and I was surprised when I also received a present from Pannee (Lulu-Suzie, the bear with the bow-tie in pic).
At the time I had the accident in September, I had just returned from Laos where I had obtained a new 2-month Thai visa. So 2 months later at the end of October I was still not able to cycle, and I went to Malaysia by train and obtained another 2-month Thai visa (as reported in my previous post). And so it happened that over New Year I had to get another visa, and this time I cycled to Laos again. I crossed at the Southern border close to the city of Pakse, a day before my Thai visa expired. It was chaos at the border as many people from both countries were crossing, probably to spend New Year with family. It also took a long time for me to get out of Thailand as the exit stamp in my passport had been canceled when I missed the flight, and I no longer had a departure card. Eventually they let me go to Laos, but they spent a lot of time on their computers and I was a bit worried that I may not be allowed back into Thailand, even with a visa. At the immigration office on the Laos side they charged me substantially more for their visa than before, but I had to pay up as I could not then return to Thailand (perhaps the officials were making some money for their New Year's party). I had to change the remainder of my cash to Laos Kip, and it seems that the shady money changer also needed funding for his New Year's party. So off I cycled into Laos, having been done out of the money which was meant to pay for a week or 2 of cycling, as well as the new Thai visa. Luckily for me my sister Olga came to the rescue once more so I could make the trip and get the new visa. I also took a bus and train part of the way back to Eastern Thailand, as I had cycled those roads a number of times before. On my visa trip to Laos I camped mainly at police stations and Buddhist temples (see pics). Thankfully the monks gave me some food to eat, for which I was very grateful.
I am able to cycle again, and I have the time, but unfortunately I do not have the funds anymore to go and complete my route through China, as planned. Even although I was not doing much cycling, I was still filming my misfortunes for Brandon who wanted to do a documentary on my travels. In November last year an agent for FedEx came around to the farm and picked up the package which contained about 8 hours of film. Unfortunately the agent did not complete all the necessary paperwork, and the package was held back in Bangkok. Eventually it was traced to the FedEx facility close to the airport, and last week I made a special trip to the city, added some more film, and re-sent the package to Brandon (2 and a half months after I had first shipped it). Hopefully he can make something of it, I am still waiting to hear from him.
I am very thankful to my sister, as she has helped me out on a number of occasions this trip, since my savings disappeared. Anyway, other than the visa run to Laos and the FedEx trip to Bangkok, I have been back on the farm. In about 3 weeks I will need to do another visa run, where to this time? Now I am waiting to see if anything comes from the filming which I have done. If nothing, I will have to make a plan to earn some money, perhaps teaching?
Mainly due to my accident in September, I have not cycled much since then. The closest town with banks and a supermarket is Amphoe Trakan, about 20 km from the farm which is close to Ban Trakan village. Usually when I go there I carry a number of bags and come back loaded with shopping, so I am counting those trips. Distances cycled since my last post have been:- Ubon Ratchathani (back and forth to closest train station) 212 km; Amphoe Trakan (shopping etc) 174 km; Khong Chiam (for visa run to Laos) 78 km; Pakse (Laos) 81 km; Small Village Temple 77 km; Rock Wat 79 km; Village Wat 68 km; Savannakhet 93 km; Tha Kaek 90 km; Vientianne (+bus) 23 km; Nonh Khai (back in Thailand) 27 km; Udon Thani 60 km; Khong Kaen 113 km; (train to Ubon Ratachathani); and Ban Trakan farm 53 km. Total distance cycled is 138 913 km.
And somebody got a tattoo (not me of course). At the time of the picture it was still very new and tender.
Besides her parents, Pannee also has 2 sons on the farm, the youngest of which is a lively 6-year old (in pic with me). So the only time I become really bored on this farm is when money runs out and we eat only rice. (But then again, rice is better than nothing at all).

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

RECOVERY IN THAILAND

Yes, I am still in Thailand - although I have come and gone a couple of times. I stayed with Pannee in Bangkok in a cheap room where all the other residents in the building were Thai people working in the tourist service business. While in Bangkok we got fresh food in the markets and cooked in the room. We also wandered around all the interesting places where the hordes of tourists hang out. it became evident that my passport would still take some time, so we moved to the family farm in Ubon province, in the East of Thailand. Pannee's 2 sons live on the farm with her parents, and one of her sisters also lives on the farm. She has a house there, and also owns a portion of the land. They farm primarily with rice, but there are also some chickens, cows, and a buffalo. Her parents run a small shop as the farm is right next door to the village school and on a main road.
Due to my full passport I could not go to China or Myanmar/India as I had initially intended. I suppose I could have cycled around Thailand again, but I have been just about everywhere in the country, and I was enjoying the new experience of living on the farm. At the end of August I cycled to Laos, primarily to buy a new Thai visa in the capital, Vientianne.
I spent a week or more in Laos before returning to Thailand via the southern "arm" of Laos. I was careful not to return to Thailand immediately once I had obtained the visa. The Thai immigration authorities are suspicious of these visa runs (illegal work) and I met some people in Laos who had been refused re-entry.
On the day that I crossed back to Thailand I got an early start, and was headed for the farm where Pannee was waiting. It was a long day and by nightfall I was still on the road. I pushed on in search of a camp site, but never made it. In the dark a speeding motorbike without lights smashed straight into the back of me. The road was dark, but there was a wide shoulder and I was concentrating on riding close to the side without going off into the ditch. However, it is my fault for not using the usual flashing red tail lights (both of them had flat batteries). The motorbike also crashed, but he managed to take off again before the police arrived (leaving broken parts and his shoes behind). My bike and I suffered some unfortunate damage, I spent the night in hospital and the following morning the police gave me and my broken bike a ride to the farm which was still almost an hour away. The daily distances which I cycled on this trip to Laos and back to Thailand are as follows:- Ban Trakan farm to Amnat Charoen 82 km; Yasothon 62 km; Roi Et 70 km; Khong Kaen 116 km; Udon Thani 115 km; Nong Khai 61 km; Vientiane (Laos) 28 km; Savannakhet (by bus) to Muang Khong 159 km; Pakse 81 km; Laos Sue Kok (Thailand) 153 km (crash in the dark!). The total distance cycled up to the fateful night of 7 September 2016 is 137685 km.
I was in bad shape but fortunately Pannee took good care of me (dressing wounds, cooking meals, getting crutches and more medicine at the clinic in the village, and more). The above picture of me on crutches was taken more than 2 weeks after the crash, so the stitches had been removed and the other sores did not need dressing anymore. I did very little for about 2 months after which time I can at least walk again. In the mean time I managed to do most of the repairs to my bike (Old Saartjie lives on!). I also had to repair ripped panniers with fishing line and duct tape. Some equipment was damaged, such as the computer charger (hence the long delay in updating this blog). Now I've managed to sort out the charger, so I can use the computer again.
It was time for another visa run, now again to Malaysia. This time I was not on the bike, so it was convenient for Pannee to accompany me. It was quite a trip involving motorbikes, minibusses, various trains in both countries, and a ferry.
The Thai Consulate in Georgetown on Penang Island in Malaysia is most convenient for a new Thai visa. We returned to the farm 2 days ago, and I feel that I need a bit more rest and recovery before moving on.
There are some options, depending largely on funds. And eventually I did pick up my new passport in Bangkok on the way back from Malaysia.

Friday, 15 July 2016

VISA RUN TO MALAYSIA

Arriving in Bangkok almost 2 months ago, I was stamped in to Thailand, with permission to stay in the country for 30 days (as usual). Those 30 days were over too soon, with the hassles of 1 week delayed baggage, etc. So, I saddled up my bike (old Saartjie), for the trip to Malaysia to get a longer Thai visa. I am still waiting for my new passport (a few months more), so Malaysia is convenient as I do not need a visa (they only place a small entry and exit stamp in the passport, which is almost full). I have cycled this route a number of times, and I had to be out of Thailand on a certain date, so I took the train for part of the way from Bangkok. From the border I headed South to Penang island where there is a Thai consulate (visa office), camping a couple of times along the way there and back. I stayed a few days in Penang (George Town), in the Little India district (good street food). Then I headed back towards Thailand and Bangkok. I arrived there without my tent poles (where do errant tent poles go?), so I have had to buy a new tent here in Bangkok. Luckily I could find a tent, but it is bigger than necessary for my purposes, and relatively bulky and heavy for cycling. Distances cycled on this trip are as follows - (NOTE THAT THESE ARE CUMULATIVE DISTANCES, AND NOT DAILY DISTANCES!):- Bangkok (to train) 16 km; Chumphon (by train) to Malaysian border at Padang Besar 563 km; Penang island (Georgetown) 262 km; Return to Thailand and take train from Hat Yai 315 km; Hua Hin (by train) to Bangkok 217 km. Total distance cycled up to 7 July 2016 is 136758 km.
And so, at the risk of harping on about things, my pre-schemed plans regarding my travels in E Asia have obviously been seriously disrupted. In the mean time my travel options are limited. But there are also positives, and the day after arriving in Thailand without any baggage I met Pannee. She has been good company, and has made me forget some of my troubles.
Currently I am visiting on her family farm in Isan, Ubon province in the East of Thailand.
The Buddhist Lent, also called the Candle Festival, is very big in this region. This year the culmination of that festival is in the provincial capital, Ubon Ratchatani, on 19 and 20 July.
The festival consists of float parades (built over months from candle wax), accompanied by local dancing troops. The various important temples compete against each other for first prize each year (nb. "temple" refers to the entire community, not only the monks). After that we take the train back to Bangkok again for the time being.