I could get used to this…

As we rode out of Chiang Mai, we approached a small village where music was blasting from speakers. We had been in Thailand long enough at this point to know something entertaining was about to happen.
As we rode up to the masses of chairs covered by a big blue party tent, several party-goers motioned for us to come in.

We entered to find a stage with several older ladies wearing different colored silken suits and sunglasses, dancing wildly to very loud music. Naturally, they invited us (insisted) that we come join them on the stage, and we obliged. We danced and drank homemade white rice whiskey. As Anshuman did a shimmy shakedown with an old and very tipsy woman, I giggled and exchanged a wink with him. After dancing, they invited us to eat. We munched on piles and piles of litchis and ate bamboo stew with sticky rice. Not long after dinner, we casually excused ourselves, thanked the hosts, and went on our way.

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Daniel getting down with the party-goers

After this event, I was reminded of the first party we accidentally crashed. We were stunned for at least 2 hours straight during the event and afterwards. We kept glancing at each other excitedly across the room, we couldn’t believe our luck, we couldn’t believe the amazingness of circumstance and coincidence or fate.

In general, our first few weeks of the trip held an air of whispered excitement. We giggled our way onto the bus, staring at everything, gasping at views, taking photos of everything.

In recent weeks, this excitement has started to wane. We don’t feel like blogging or taking photos, awe-inspiring views don’t phase us, we are only slightly surprised when we stumble into a party with spirit mediums and homemade white rice whiskey.

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What we normally wake up to…

I suppose this is a natural progression, but it is somehow amazing to realize that even the most unpredictable and seemingly ‘unroutine’ lifestyle – a nomadic one – can begin to feel mundane. Indeed it is not the circumstance which determines the level of gratitude, but rather the mindset.
How does one maintain perspective and ‘fresh eyes’ in the midst of everyday life? And everyday life can be anything – from that of a blue collar worker, to that of a Queen, to that of a nomadic bicycle tourist.

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A view to keep us on our toes

I try to remember ‘where I am’ and how unique an opportunity this is, but that method might not apply in a more traditional everyday life situation. Instead of constant stimulation and newness, I wonder if it is possible to look at the same thing again and again, and by ‘looking a different way’ actually see a different thing – like close reading a painting or a text.

If not, perhaps this feeling of boredom or complacency is not something to be feared? Maybe it is an essential part of the human experience? Maybe it shows us that we have learned and that we are adaptable and that we are curious?
Just keep pedaling, just keep pedaling….

 

The Trouble With Hills

Today is our forty-eighth day on the road. While that statement sounds dramatic and is a good conversation starter at Vang Vieng’s coffee shops, it doesn’t fully tell of how we have actually spent most of those days on the road, counting kilometers, navigating traffic, and studying fold-out maps. As is to be expected, life on the street has taught us a thing or two.

Road signs, for instance, have become a big part of our lives. They rarely lie, and only occasionally deceive. We have gotten used to two Thai classics:

1. The Truck That Climbs
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The sight of this sign usually makes Marcus stop to pull out his chewing gum, (“I need the sugar, bro.”) and makes Daniel go into his ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ climbing stance.

2. The Truck That Descends

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This one makes everyone but Daniel heave a sigh of relief. While Kei, Marcus and I stand in our seats and switch to high gears, poor Dan (who is fighting a phobia of falling) clutches his brakes and hangs on for dear life.

A few days ago, when Marcus and I were riding from Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong, we arrived at a rather ridiculous climb. After huffing and puffing our way up the slope, we stopped at the top for a breather. A little kid and his mum were sitting in a shack by the road. I walked by bike over to them, and asked if we could eat at the village nearby. (When you ride with Marcus, you eat whenever possible.) Although the lady replied in the negative, she felt sure we could find food at the bottom of the hill. She pointed further down the route, where the road fell into a gorgeous, meandering decline lasting a few kilometers. Marcus and I exchanged a smile, thanked her, and rode away.

What got me thinking, however, was the little boy. The sight of me did not get him excited. He did not look at my strange face, my curly hair, or my funny clothes. He did not participate in my chat with his mother. I’m pretty sure he was altogether unaware of my presence.
Something else had caught his eye: my chakrayan. He stared at the wheels, their rims so shiny. He looked over the gears, the contraption so bewildering. His gaze lingered on the tires, the tread so muddy. It pained me to ride away: I have never seen anyone look at Gio, my bike, with more love.Map sketch

It wasn’t until much later, while riding an altogether different road up an altogether different hill in an altogether different country, that I realized why that kid has reacted so. It was like when someone tells a joke and you pretend to laugh but only actually understand it afterwards.

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He lived in a village on the ridge of a hill, sandwiched between The Truck That Climbs and The Truck That Descends. That little child had never seen a bicycle before, because little children cannot climb hills on their little-child bicycles. None of his friends in his village had bicycles, because they were too little for motorbikes and because bikes cannot climb hills.

Profiles of the Bicycle

Based on observations of bicycles primarily in Thailand, I have compiled a list of profiles of the different Bicycles most typically seen:

The Basketal

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Description: An older v-frame bicycle, easy to mount for even the smallest of jockeys. A large front basket usually carrying an umbrella or goods from the market
Jockey: An older woman or man, age 50+, often wearing slipper-style shoes and a sun hat
Typically seen: in the morning, in small to medium-sized towns and in residential areas

 

The School-kid

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Description: The bicycle is an older v-frame,  usually mis-sized for its jockey. Popcorn or takeaway food dangle from the handlebars.
Jockey: A student wearing a school uniform, knee socks, and a huge school backpack
Typically seen: in the morning and afternoon, as transport to and from school

 

Spandexy

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Description: Newer, straight-framed bicycle, typically with water bottle holders, and grip tape. Usually traveling in packs.
Jockey: Man or woman aged 25-40, wearing spandex shorts, a quick-dry shirt, and a helmet
Typically seen: early in the morning or in the evening, mostly on weekends
* The Spandexy usually feels the most camaraderie towards us and shows it through waving or stopping to ask us where we are going or to check out our bicycles.

 

Tricycle

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Description: Not yet ready for training wheels, the tricycle allows for even the youngest jockeys to ride
Jockey: A young’n, usually using her legs for power and totally unaware of the existence of pedals
Typically seen: in driveways or residential areas, and on weekends

 

Slow but Steady

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Description: This bicycle is usually creatively rigged so that it can transport a lot of goods – everything from bamboo, roots, and herbs, to building materials and foods – from the rural areas/ fields and to the towns and cities.
Jockey: An older man or woman, wearing a sun hat or headscarf as protection from the heat, pedaling very slowly
Typically seen: on long stretches of roads between towns or in rural or agricultural areas

 

Joy Ride

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Description: A v-framed bicycle, usually with a bell and sometimes with a basket
Jockey: A mother wearing house clothes or pajamas, usually with a baby propped on the seat, or strapped to her back
Typically seen: in residential areas, traveling up and down the street, or around and around in circles to entertain or soothe the baby to sleep

 

Fixie Coolkids

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Description: Singles speed straight-framed bicycle, usually neon colored frame, tires, and wheels. Minimalist – no water bottle holders or accessories
Jockey: a child or teenager, wearing skinny jeans and a flat-billed cap, usually pedals standing up, and travels in a gang or equally cool riders
Typically seen: on the weekends and in the evenings, around the central parts of a town or city, less seen in rural areas

 

Tandem – redone

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Description: A v-framed bicycle rigged to carry two (or three) passengers, a rear rack supports a second passenger
Jockey: A father-daughter duo, or friends, or siblings. The more senior of the two pedals, the other holds on dearly
Typically seen: on the way to and from school, around rural villages at any time of the day or week

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Gratitude

During our first week of this trip, I bought a small notepad at a stationary shop in northern Malaysia.
At the time, I was not sure what I would use it for. Very quickly, however, its purpose became clear.

Since that time, I have used it to scribble random acts of kindness that people have done for us along our way. I can safely say that by now this little notepad is well-weathered, and its pages are close to filled. Indeed everyday, multiple times, we experience immense kindness and hospitality and help from complete strangers.

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A kind family in Ban Thung Maha, Thailand who welcomed us into their home, fed us for two nights, and let us join their weekend adventures horseback riding, visiting their coconut and durian farm, and swimming at the beach.

During the first few weeks of the trip, I struggled with the magnitude and frequency of these random acts of kindness. I did not feel I knew how to say thank you adequately. The outpouring of love and luck and help we received felt like a burden to me, piling up gradually on my shoulders. I felt that my capacity-for-good-fortune had to have reached its maximum, and that I should be weary of asking for anything else from anyone.

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A man in a small village somewhere in Northeastern Laos who started a fire and helped us cook some eggs from a Mama shop; it was our first meal of the day and we were desperate.

At the start, these acts of kindness actually caused some contention within our group. We could not agree on how to say thank you, and even to whom.
Indeed this raised some very interesting conversations regarding graciousness. It matters hugely who you attribute your good fortune to. Who is sending all this help? Is it God, the universe, the individuals themselves, blind luck, coincidence?
If you thank God or the universe are you discounting the kindness and agency of the individuals themselves?
On the other hand, if you thank the individuals, regarding them as completely disconnected from one another, do you run the risk of demanding too much without considering your role in the larger (perhaps karmic?) order of things?

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The young monks who strung an extension cord across the street and tied a light to a pole with their extra robe cloth. They also brought us bottled water and a mat for sleeping.

I have not resolved this question for myself yet, but in the meantime, I’ll keep “thank you” (in its various forms) on my tongue, and my little notepad in hand…

Sorry for the Silence!

We have been internet-less for far too long!
Check this space in the next few hours for some long-overdue updates.

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We successfully made it into Laos!

The Unexpected Border Town

I have always been fascinated by cities and towns that sit on the borders of nations. Although I’d never actually been to such a place, I figured it was reasonable to expect interesting things from a town that straddles two countries. I figured, at the very least, that such a place would feature a mix of two cultures. Two for the price of one. The thrifty Indian in me approved.

But as I said, I had never been to such a place. Few can say they have. For all our globetrotting, we make transitions not from country to country but from airport to airport, station to station. We turn our flip books with great speed, with no time to give each page its due.

In the last month, I have crossed one border and grazed past another. By the time this trip is over I will have crossed two more. But this post is not about the roadside money changers of Padang Besar or the mysterious Urdu speakers of Mae Sot. I have chanced upon something altogether more interesting: a border town where you would least expect it, smack in the middle of a country.

Chiang Mai straddles no borders, but the city is criss-crossed with borders all the same. Here’s the deal: the tourists of Chiang Mai aren’t confined to one farang part of town. Sure, there is Old City with its bike rental shops and espresso-serving cafes, but that is not where the action is. The tourists have long since leaked out of Old Town and invaded the city as a whole. As a result, the streets of the city are homogenous in their confusion. Special Massages are advertised as blatantly as the latest deals in refrigerators. The bustling (and decidedly local) Warorot Market is situated awkwardly on Tha Phae Road, with its art galleries and handicraft stores. Even the wats seem unsure of themselves: some are sober and quiet, while others offer one-on-one English interactions with the monks at select times of the day.

Each such confusion comes with its own border. While the locals and the tourists throng the same streets and see the same signs, they certainly do not respond to what they see similarly. A local knows exactly where on Tha Phae Road to go to buy eggs: she sure isn’t going to get lost and land up at an art gallery! A woman looking to spend a couple of hours studying her copy of Lonely Planet is going to find her way to a quiet bar, and not to a loud stall selling nam soup by the bowl.

A border runs throughout Chiang Mai. It twists around and turns back on itself, cuts through streets and skips over rivers. It tells you where to speak Thai and where you are better off with English. It tells you where the locals pray and where the backpackers drink.
It offers you two cultures, yes. Two for the price of one, yes. But like all borders, it leaves you starkly aware of which side you stand on.

Praak saam ruup

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Monks begging for alms in the morning

In Thai, if you want to put a quantity onto a noun, you need what is called a ‘classifier’. The classifier specifies what is being quantified. For example, to say “we are four students” you must say “rao naksiksa sii khon” which translates literally to “we are students four persons”. In this case, the “persons” is the classifier.
The classifier for monk, or praak, is not the expected “khon” meaning “person”. Instead it is “ruup”means ‘image’ or ‘picture’. Linguistically, therefore, monks are considered to be images or pictures of the Buddha. Their reverent status is literally imbedded in the Thai language.

On our journey thus far, we have had many unique opportunities to become intimately acquainted with the lives of monks. Indeed nearly every night we sleep in a wat, and sometimes we are actually housed in the monks’ quarters. It is somehow remarkable to brush your teeth at a water faucet while a monk takes a shower just next door, or to hang your padded bike shorts on the same line with those saffron robes.
I am amazed by how open and inclusive the monks have been, inviting us into their living spaces, welcoming us to follow them as they take alms, or laying down mats for us to join in their 6 o’clock prayers.

To my knowledge, the life is a monk is usually shrouded by an inaccessible and sacred cloud of mystery. It seems as if we common people are not supposed to imagine monks eating, sleeping, brushing their teeth, or feeling emotions of boredom, discouragement, anger, happiness. We are to regard them as somehow more-than-human, beings that have chosen a path of spiritual enlightenment, humility, denouncement of material possession, etc.

So far on this trip, however, I have had several encounters with monks that have surprised me:
One monk hurried out of bed at 5am to fire a slingshot to scatter a flock of cackling birds.
One monk used his iPad to take a selfie with us.
One monk crouched in some bushes talking on his cellphone.
One monk grabbed Anshuman’s arm, and insisted he take a photo with him.

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Monks who invited us to join them for their morning Alms-run in Songkhla

The most memorable encounter, however, I will recount in more detail:
We arrived in a small village (the name of which I have forgotten) somewhere in the mountains between Mae Sot and Mae Sariang. It had been raining all day, but the clouds finally surrendered when we arrived, so the air was cool and calm. I sat on a wooden porch overlooking the wat’s parking lot. From my position, I could look across the parking lot and see perfectly squarely into the prayer hall. My viewpoint was optimum, one of these rare and special ‘seeing but unseen’ moments.

The clock struck 6:00 and a young monk hurried to the prayer hall, leaning his small body to push open the heavy metal sliding gate. From my seat I could see the brilliant gold of the various statues of the seated Buddha, looming over the small boy.
The monks began to arrive, walking with quick directed steps, as they assumed their seated positions and began their daily prayers and chanting.

Soon after the arrival of the monks had calmed down, one small boy-monk (probably 9 years old) approached the prayer hall. He walked with even measured, almost marching-steps, turning sharply to enter the front door square on. As he approached the steps, however, he hesitated, his pace slowed. He clasped his hands behind his back and tentatively, slowly, turned away from the prayer hall. He meandered his way, guiltily it seemed, to a nearby tree, and began to play with a low-hanging leaf. He looked at the branch fondly, indulging in this distraction.
After some minutes he quietly approached the prayer hall again, this time, taking a curved path, sneaking in to sit in company with his age-mates.

Soon after, an older monk idled up to the side of the prayer hall. He finished his cigarette before entering, a certain sheepishness in his gait.
Two young monks sprinted up the prayer hall, panting. They consulted each other silently, with gestures, realized they were too late to reasonably join prayers, and ran off again into the larger wat grounds.

Minutes later, I watched, in awe, as two of the young monks inside the prayer hall began to poke and tease each other. They took turns, making sure the senior monks couldn’t see them. One would reach out his arm to jab the other one in the ribs. Seconds later, the jab-victim would respond by sticking his tongue out at the jabber.
This prodding and teasing went on for sometime, all while the senior monks sat diligently, the chanting continued, and the great Buddha towered, golden, his lips curled in serene contentment.

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Standing and Seated Buddhas

I watched all of this from my porch, in awe. I felt somehow astounded at the’ humanness’ of these monks. I could suddenly empathize more deeply than ever before with the complexity of emotions that young (and all) monks must feel at choosing this spiritual path.
Indeed the boy-monk’s hesitation – his choice of the trees over the prayer hall – did not lower him in any way in my eyes. If anything, he became a more accessible and endearing character, and perhaps one even more deserving of respect.

Are these praaks truly images of the Buddha? Do they aspire to be? Or are they merely boys and men who have chosen a path of enlightenment, status, poverty, and indeed inherent contradiction.

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The first Monk Initiation Ceremony we watched

 

And the Mountains Echoed

I pride myself for this fitting title as I finish reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel in my kindle and also as we arrive in Chiang Mai after days of cycling over and around mountains. IMG_5574IMG_5387 Oh yes do the mountains echo. No doubt about that. But they echo weirdly, unlike usual echoes which become softer and smaller. Mountains echo in the opposite direction, bigger than the next, and definitely louder – louder swearing and louder laughs of sadism and disbelief. IMG_5406 Hosseini’s novel is about separation and then reunion of both characters and plot. The stories expand as characters face heart-wrenching separation, and unrealistically reunite through the possibilities of an expanded story. IMG_5342 In these mountains, we saw separation. The separation of people from their land – non-thai-speaking Burmese working in Mae Sot, forever burdened with sending back money to their struggling families in Burma and kilometers spanning a Burmese refugee camp holding who knows how many people.

Burmese refugee camp

Burmese refugee camp

IMG_5353 The separation of countries – a river and a mountain range conveniently separating a land into two governments, two languages, two cultures, and two countries. IMG_5339 The separation from a lack of communication – the Thai and Burmese language, and even the English language, so alien to these mountains. And also, our separation from all civilisation when we were on the mountains, in the clouds, unable to contact family, friends and school for a night. A night for us, but maybe a lifetime for these cloud dwellers.

No idea where we are

No idea where we are

Reunion however, I see, takes place in the fantasies of writers and readers, and the privileges of the tourist. IMG_5455

A Post About Thai Food

I write this sitting in a restaurant in Chiang Mai, eating a bowl of what has been described to me as spicy ramen soup with tonkatsu.

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After almost three weeks in Thailand, I found my first mango sticky rice yesterday in Chiang Mai. What have I been eating? You might ask. I think I can safely say I’ve been eating Thai food. After all, it has all been made by Thai people, ordered in Thai, by roadside stalls, and more or less the same throughout.

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With family and friends, we all know what we mean when we say “let’s go for Thai food” – this includes food such as pad thai, beef noodles, pineapple fried rice, tom yum, pandan chicken, basil minced pork, fried whole fish with mango/papaya salad drizzled in thai spicy sauce, red ruby, mango sticky rice. I think these are more than available in Chiang Mai city, but these are not what I eat everyday. In fact, we eat plain old kway teow soup, khao pad (fried rice), mixed rice, and (fine I admit) some pad thai.

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Is Thai food what the average Thai person eats? If so Thai food is rice, with maybe a fried egg and some vegetable curry.

Is it what foreginers imagine it to be (for we are the only ones who call it thai food)? If so then Thai food is the obvious list above.

Is it what touring cyclists eat? No doubt, this is kway teow soup and fried rice.

Is it what Thai people in the prominent cities (Bangkok, Chiang Mai) eat? If so, then this list is complicated.

"Farang" is foreigner

“Farang” is foreigner

As I finish my bowl of ramen I think the same questions can be asked not just for food but for what is Thai? Who are the Thai people and what represents Thailand and its culture?

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Same Same, But Different

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I came to this country with full confidence that this one phrase would save me from being utterly wordless before a local – that is “sawaddee krap”. Honestly, you could survive visiting thailand with just that one phrase; you fly in and fly out with it. I greet everyone with this, and with the expectation of a smile, of recognition, of bridge gap-ing. But this time I fail: He stares at me blinking, mutters something to his fellow men, teeth disfigured to a slush of red and black. He scratches his backside through a longyi, and then his cheek, spreading the iconic traces of thanaka. These are the Burmese people.

Burmese street in Mae Sot

Burmese street in Mae Sot

We are along the border of Thailand and Burma, accessible only after a series of mountains. You’d be surprised that this is Thailand. The contrast is stark, and it is appalling knowing that you have crossed no borders and are very much still in Thailand. The Thailand we were in before does not stray far from one would expect, save for the rurality of some villages which hardly count for surprises. This is a whole different ball game. We didn’t fly from Bangkok to Mae Sot, the effect I see now as so similar to the cleansing glass of cold water served between wine tasting glasses. We had no teleportation of sorts, no “Welcome to Northern Thailand” sign; we simply moved on land, slowly cycling through the same country.

Thai table set-up

Thai table set-up

Burmese table set-up

Burmese table set-up

The same country? Jurong and Changi are in the same country. I’ve lived with that, and I guess I’ve built my understanding of “same country” along those lines. I guess Singapore gives one a sense of “country” that is unlike most places in the world. We are small, so concentrated and so accessible amongst each other. I start to see in us an identity that probably escapes the many countries surrounding us.

Burmese street food

Burmese street food

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