Sunday, December 24, 2006

Part 2: Post Kathmandu

From Tibet to the Tropics
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So we're here. Sweating and schvitzing, moist and perspiring. Yup, it's tropical. "Toto, I don't think we’re in Tibet anymore." And it's definitely not China. And how do we know?

We came out of the organic moldiness of Nepal and the chaotic consumerism of Kathmandu to the warm hospitality of the Thai people. Bangkok is more like LA than Thailand, but even there, people were out-of-their-way helpful, and certainly not trying to rip us off at every turn. Well, maybe the tuk-tuk drivers- the three-wheeled motorcycle taxis that lurk at tourist haunts to overcharge their passengers for a thrilling ride through traffic. But most of the merchants asked a fair price and were willing to bargain. We spent six days there, in Bangkok, far longer than we wanted, because we had to wait for an available seat on the train north. We had a relaxing time at the Atlanta Hotel where we met several engaging women: two Swedes returning from Burma where one, a journalist, carried a hidden microphone for the Swedish Public Radio piece she was working on. A mother-daughter Canadian pair in the social work, behavioral medicine fields also became instant friends. Interestingly, 3 of the 4 of them were Jewish. I'd never met a Jewish Swede before. She said there were only 17,000 of them, but they made a lot of noise. She also interviewed me for another piece she was doing on health care. It was fascinating to her to hear about my visit to Bumrungrad Hospital where I underwent a comprehensive physical exam. Why would I make a special trip to Bangkok just to get a check-up? Simple. I'm an American. And since I'm on a leave from my job, I have no health insurance. But not to worry: we may have inadequate health coverage, but we have plenty of weapons of mass destruction.

As relatively nice as Bangkok was with its clean, air conditioned rapid transit, and delicious 50 cent street food, it was nice to finally get out of the city. We threaded the bikes on foot through the congested, humid streets downtown to the main railway station for our overnighter north. The train differed from the Russian and Chinese trains I've traveled on- larger sleeping berth, no free food. We got out before Chiang Mai at Lampang, and headed north on a route that should have taken us to the elephant training camp. At least according to two maps. We started in the wide shoulder lane of Highway 1 before crossing over to the quiet, hilly and winding backroads. A pleasant ride, and 45 kilometers later, we were back in Lampang where we learned that the elephant camp had been moved, to near Chiang Mai, where our tickets were meant to take us in the first place. Highly reminiscent of leaving Kashgar, going in circles. But this time we had consulted the map. At least we had a beautiful tour and then some local men helped us to flag down a bus and reach the night's intended destination, Phayao. We stayed at the locals’ hotel for 4 dollars, en suite. An overhead fan was enough to keep moisture and mosquitoes at bay. Next morning, we caught the bus to Chiang Rai where we started cycling in earnest. We rode the small roads for 82 kilometers, and were able to sleep in a small village bungalow. A shop girl pumping gas from her family's local barrels- atop 50 gallon drums sit three-liter, plastic graduated cylinders into which the fuel is hand pumped and out of which it is gravity fed into vehicular tanks- told us about the guest house. When she had difficulty drawing a map that we'd be able to follow, she said to wait a minute, disappeared, and then returned with a motor bike. She led the way back to our pleasant sleep for the night. The next day, 60 easy kilometers brought us to the border town of Chiang Khong where we could catch the slow boat to Pakbeng, Laos. We over-nighted in this tourist town complete with Mexican food and high-speed internet, in a multi-leveled, old fashioned house made of rich, dark, hardwood planks. It was lavishly furnished with traditional pieces, complete with hammocks and a fountain in the main lobby/guest lounge living room. Spacious, creaky, traditional, and with a large diameter tree growing right through the place- all for about six dollars. The next day, we shuttled to the other side of the river in a long-tailed, outboard motor boat to officially enter the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Laos, and head downstream on a pleasant, five hour voyage. Loaded with about 120 backpacker tourists and a few locals, we motored downstream, even through some rapids, on a 70-foot long, six foot wide, wooden river boat. The 6-cylinder, diesel motor was attached to a hand-cooled transmission. A teenage boy was no doubt going deaf from his job which was to wet down the old, greasy bath towel which was wrapped around the gear box with water scooped from the bulge with a 1-liter plastic bottle lashed to a three foot long, bamboo pole.

Indian food for dinner, banana pancakes for breakfast, and we were off. Along small roads, banana trees sported bright red flowers, harvested field stubble surrounded the thatched-roof, raised shade platforms scattered throughout the cultivated land. Dog-faced, doe-eared cows ate their fill from the lushness of Chiang Rai province. Back in the saddle again, I was brought back to the last days of Tibet, recalling when I was full of the sense that we were in the theatre but the play was over. The lights were on, but everyone was gone. The stage was empty. The place was cold and abandoned. Even the stones were frozen. In contrast, this was everything easy. People said our route would be hilly. But it seemed to be more down than up. And the wind, when it wasn't at our back, brought a gentle cooling to our untaxed cycling bodies. Coming down from the Tibetan Plateau last month, our first day was more up than down, and always struggling hard against the wind. "This isn't the movie we came to see," I told Chris. You know how you go into a multiplex and a few minutes into the film you realize that you are sitting in the wrong theater? "We're supposed to be seeing The Longest Downhill in the World. This is the wrong movie!" But no mistake in Thailand. It was merrily, merrily, the ride is but a dream. The road was smooth, with a wide enough shoulder. The drivers all seemed to know where they belonged, and stayed there. Chris noticed that we didn’t hear any horns. An occasional gentle toot was just for the wave, the thumbs up, the "good going". Clearly, we had entered another world.

So, how do we know we are not in Tibet? Well the food here is delicious. The air is relatively clean. We are not coated with dust. Our noses aren't runny. There is litter, but no garbage. People have toilets and know how to use them so we don't have to watch where to step. The hotel beds don't have springs protruding and unmentionable dirt in the corners. Children don't try to grab the bikes as we pass.

"People smile here," I said to Chris. It’s really amazing after going so long without. When they say hello and then laugh, it's because their mouths feel giddy from the foreign words, not because they are mocking us.

But the main way we know this isn't Tibet though, is how we are dressed: we are wearing sandals!

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