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Dear All,So you thought it was safe to go back in the e, heh? You thought I'd ceased sending you ramblings from the side of the road to the horizon, did you? Well, you're over 21 now and I think you can handle the ugly reality.... And to make things worse, I'm going to regail your system with a volley of whinging about my computer mailbox overloading with 401 messages on when I arrived in Bangkok, demanding a 2 to 3 hour download prolonged by cuts in transmission which sent it back to the beginning, most of which mail being jokes from someone going by the name of John (probably a pseudonym) and whose real life I'd rather read about, especially if he rates it to be worse than the jokes he forwards. Or maybe I'll spare telling you about all that, and that the other most (bad English) of my mail was stuff i sent myself in a bid to convince myself that I'm not really sadder and lonelier than the aforementioned John. No, I'll not mention that. GigaTHANKS to all of you who've contributed to the remainder of my system congestion. You'll be glad to know that my mailbox is now freed up and ready to receive more of your useful pieces of advice as to where to go and what to do with my bicycle pump. Please keep it up. There have been a whole bunch of other more interesting things that have kept me out of your hair since I last e'd you from Vientiane, Laos, and there's also the following sequence of events: AFTER CHRISTMASING in the company of my friend; jazzy, generous and jokey Gisele (pronounced with a pronounced French phonetic J), who's Vientiane house was my home for a spell, I succumbed to the urge to visit Luang Prabang further up the Mekhong River. The road didn't lie lazily alongside the river, but ribboned up into the sky to hurdle some adult-size mountains, and then hurtle decisively down again. Gisele kindly allowed me to store the bulk of my heavy gear at her place without charging for floor reinforcements, and I headed for the hills delightfully lightly loaded. On a deliciously jungly section of the road I slowed to check out some leaves wider than I could stretch my arms and to stare into the dense vegetation, and then slowed further to inspect an oncoming elephant; the only one I saw in a country called Land of a Million Elephants. Then the mountains rose like collossal pillars from the paddies, guarding secluded grottoes and canyons where I found a cool crystal river to swim into a cave and spot bats by the beam of my Maglite strapped to my head. When doing that kind of stuff I highly recommend using FULLY charged batteries, though. The pedal upwards from the heat to the chilly tops really knocked the stuffing out of me (result of christmas holidaying maybe), but the reward of the slog was not an immediate, rapid descent, but a road that played around the heights, stretched along ridges and curled around peaks sheltering stilted villages, where it became a playground for the children and goats of the local Hmong hill-tribespeople. But most eyecatching were the older Hmong girls, resplendant in their black dresses adorned with multicoloured jewellery, beads and jangling, dangling threaded coins and head-dresses, with their pretty parasols. These girls would stand in lines backdropped by the sky, and wile away their early evenings or Sundays tossing black rubber balls to each other, or to a prospective boyfriend should one present himself. The repetitive tossing of a ball between the boy and the girl is some kind of compatibility test; if the ball is dropped often, then I gather the match is not good. Down! Wheeee! DOWN! Yahoooooo! Uh Oh, UP some. Grunt, groan, grind, squeak. Doooooown!! Yeeehaaa! like a child at a funfair. That's me. the big descents never fail to at least quarter my mental age. To the enfolding jungle again. But to avoid a late search for a hotel, I decided to camp out beside the road just before entering Luang Prabang. I woke surprised to find a shroud of mist verging on rain. And Luang Prabang came at me from within the mist, born upon silent tyres, and smothered me irresistably in its mystique. A true lost city. Daily the sun burns the mist away to set ablaze golden stupas, silver dragons, red, tall, steep rooves and glittering mosaic walls of sleepy temples, which then seemed to stand out of the forest to greet the immaculate sky. Time to dip into the cool turquoise of one of the nearby forest-waterfalls. Along the way little more than a broadening smile and a welcoming nod or greeting from people showed any disturbance from usual routine. Until the enthusiastic children came out from schools, that is. In this short space I can't take you behind the mists of Luang Prabang or paint the atmosphere of Laos for you, though. I'll just say GO, if it's at all possible. On my return to Vientiane, I visited the Vientiane Times office. They'd printed an article about me (News must be scarce, eh?) while I'd been away. Along with a copy of that they gave me a copy of an international magazine article entitling the road I'd just cycled twice, "The Road of Death." Thanks for the warning!! Happily stuffed with nearly-fatally spicey chopped chicken ("lap") and sticky rice ("kao niao") and more leaves of more varieties than I've eaten in all other countries combined, I left Vientiane again to cross Friendship Bridge into Thailand. there was just one last hitch; An international agreement between the Lao and Thai governments stipulated that bicycles could not be ridden over the bridge. I could just imagine the top-level negotiations that went on! Anyway, persistence got me nowhere except that the police flagged down some people with a pick-up truck to take me with little choice. They turned out to be from the office of the Prime Minister, with perhaps some hand in that agreement, so I didn't feel too guilty after all. (They gave me their email address too. So; Thanks for the ride!) I hung around in the border town of Nongkhai for 10 days. That was partly enjoyably killing time yarning with other transients, but mainly because of a reluctance to move on to the next town where I would need dental work. Well, that turned out to be an understatement. A major excavation was required to remove 2 wisdom teeth. Mummy!!!!!!! I remember afterwards feeling weak and traumatised, sitting in the waiting room trying to regain composure watching MTV and looking out of the plate glass window at the busy shopping street and suddenly seeing an elephant walk past, loaded with bananas, its owner pulling it up to a shop opposite to sell. Talk about spin-outs.... My expectations of Thailand as a hard-nosed, ultra-touristic money-machine were very quickly blown away by the hospitality and kindness of the people I met. Some would go so far as to open their homes to me and one woman even wondered if I might like to marry her 14year-old daughter. I would've liked to invite you all to the wedding, but it was a real non-starter as you can imagine. Even if we could keep catching the rubber ball.... The forestry officers in one hotel-less town cleaned out a small house all but for the resident 1foot-long Gecko, for me to stay just one night in. One of them then fed me royally, evening and morning, and asked for nothing other than conversation in return. And as I so often find as I move on, good consequence followed good. He happened to be driving into Khao Yai National Park the same day I would be there looking for a hitch in, maybe to see a tiger. (There's nothing wrong with keeping hoping, is there?) So he picked me up outside my hotel on the road to the park and drove me to the headquarters. On the way we saw the biggest snake I've ever seen stretched halfway across the road; a brightly zigzag coloured Boa Constrictor. We stopped and he shooed it off into the bush before I had time to photograph it. Sadly, I think I saw the same snake a couple of days later in a sack, still alive and being shown off by some guys outside my hotel. I was left in the hands of a friend of the forester at the HQ. The friend promptly disappeared out of shyness or an attack of speaking-English-ophobia, and I found myself in the care of Philippa, an English translator working for the park. I followed her on a reconnoissance hike through Khao Yai's fabulous primary and secondary forests, learning to look at what's on the ground to see what's high up in the canopy, out of sight. But it was necessary to look up to see a spectacular bird called a Great Hornbill, with its distinctive wing beat, like the stroke of some giant saw. That evening, as we were leaving the canteen at Philippa's digs in the park, about to go out to follow up a lead on a possible tiger-sighting, I was attacked by a Palm Civet which was under a table licking dirty plates and probably spooked when we turned the light off. The bite was pretty superficial, but drew blood, meaning that I had to undergo a course of 5 rabies injections. So now I can write a fairly comprehensive guide to Thailand's hospitals should there be demand. The day after learning about some of the environmental evils of golf courses from Philippa, I went and played my first ever game of golf on a proper course, a 9-hole one belonging to an international school where a friend was teaching, so for little cost. I used a club for the first time and I can now see the thrill of whacking a ball further than I can see, though more often came the frustration of whacking it only a few feet. And hunting the ball out of bounds is exciting when there's a possibility of disturbing a King Cobra. No such luck though. And the thrills don't match those gleaned from tracked to within sight. On to Ayuthaya, one of Thailand's former capitals. Its mazes of crumbling, red-brick towers, stupas and Buddha statues of ancient temples set amidst parkland and canals, especially in the warm glow of the late sun, were ideal grounds for me to summon up the resolve to tackle Bangkok's whirl and noise. What I wasn't prepared for was the near insanity I was pushed to by two sleepless nights being mauled by a legion of Bangkok's finest bed-bugs in a grotty guest house in the "farang" (foreigner) infested area of Khao San /BangLamPu. Combined with the indifference of the unfriendly, tourist-affected staff, it took me almost to screaming point. I've never had it that bad before. In contrast to other traveller-congregation places, Khao San's atmosphere seemed cold and unsociable, almost hostile, with travellers of every shape, size, age, colour, hairstyle, pierced body-part, dress-style, body-art, nationality, eccentricity, occupation, financial means, and religion (though mostly Euro football, obvious from the jerseys), not so much mingling as just going by; Arriving, finding rooms, eating, watching videos or football, shopping, leaving. I left this somewhat fascinating area to stay at a Youth Hostel in a more traditionally Thai smiley sector, returning only to eat (Thai food is superb) and meet friends. But Wow! the temples and traffic, the palaces and pollution, the Mercedes and motorbike-kitchens, the monks and lady-men of Bangkok. I stored stuff yet again and took a train south with an American cyclist called Tobey. We rode a couple of laugh-filled days together. It IS good to have conversation to mask the slowly passing Kilometre posts. And, surprisingly, being 2 didn't stop us getting invited into someone's family home, even in that short time. By a gardener. By a pharmacist. By a restauranteur. So many of the places I went to in the south have a stay-forever attraction about them; the sheer cliffs from the beaches of Ao Nang; the coves and lagoons of Phuket; the deserted beaches of Hat Khao Lak and snorkling the reefs of the Similan Islands nearby (apparently the soft white sands there are the excrement of coral-eating Parrot Fish like underwater rainbows); and the spectacular diving at Koh Tao. Phang Nga is fantastic with its rock towers rising from the sea, but "James Bond Island" is missable in my opinion. Learning to dive was a dream; the closest thing to flying I can think of. And watching helplessly the cartoon spectacle of our brave instructor, Kate, being chased round and round by a territorial Trigger Fish with a one ton (per square inch?) bite power, was something else. For once it wasn't me being attacked. The book work was a bit of a drag though, with the sun shining and the beaches so inviting. Now I'm back in Bangkok almost ready to ride to Malaysia. I'll have to pry myself away from this email shop, where they are ultra friendly to me their first ever customer, and have given me patient help with my system problems, plus free cups of coffee. I definitely want to return to Thailand someday. Before I get back on the road I will try to reply to the emails I've received, and maybe get round to sending some real mail postcards too. SORRY to anyone whose mail went missing in my system mess-up. Must Fly.
Good Times to You.
PS I'll be in Kuala Lumpur in early May, if you wish to mail me at:
c/o Poste Restante Main Post Office
Kuala Lumpur Malaysia.
Oh! And for a pic, check out the following web site: http://www.cv.nrao.edu/library/china/catba_pic.html Thanks to Ron and his BikeFriday + Check out: email@example.com See Ya Around R
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