“The nomad places little value on what he cannot carry.” Prof. R. Patke | Yale-NUS College | 2013
NB: Clicking on a picture will link to a high-resolution shot.
4:30 (in theory) Wake up – thanks to the beeping of Anshuman’s watch or a chorus of roosters
5:00 Eat a breakfast of fruit, bread, and occasionally Maggi Mee
5:30 – 6:00 Get on the road!
7:00 Our first Breakfast stop (hopefully after about 25km of riding)
7:30 On the road again…
8:30 Stop to take a photo of someone and their chakrayan (bicycle)
9:30 Get lost, ask for directions with exaggerated hand gestures and our disintegrating map
10:00 Shade and Food Break
11:00 Stop to take a photo of a cock fight
11:30 – 13:30 Eat lunch and chat about life, our families, methods of applying sunscreen, our favorite foods, etc.
13:30 Start riding, only to realize that Kei has a flat tire
14:30 Stop to take a photo of someone and their chakrayan
15:00 – 16:00 Ask for a nearby Wat (Temple) where we can sleep. Arrive at the Wat.
16:00 Laundry Time
17:30 – 18:00 Find Dinner (likely at a Monk Initiation ceremony/ party)
18:30 – 21:00 Group reflection, writing, reading, wander around, walk, pray with monks, Push-ups with Master Marcus, Abs with Anshuman, Yoga with Kei
21:00 (in theory) Long- awaited sleep!
Despite how short our one week stint in Malaysia was, we definitely captured many interesting shots of the bicycle and its various uses. Much of this was possible with the help of our lovely host and translator Ru, who sped us around in her ‘Ru-mobile’ to hunt down various aunties and uncles on bikes.
To continue my previous post ‘The Technology-Practice of the Bicycle”, I hope that this post will help to bring out the mutable relationship of the bicycle and the user, and the ways that this instructs both cultural and organisational changes. By stringing these photos into broad themes of function, heritage and transference, and emerging cycling culture, we hope to make some sense of the story of the bicycle and its users in Malaysia.
The first thing that we noticed about the bike in Malaysia was its diversity in its appearance, form and function. While the creativity within these various uses were immediately evident, what struck me was how closely the form of the bicycle suited the needs of the user – sometimes in really interesting ways. In an age where we look for the swankiest and the snazziest toys to own, some of the folks in Malaysia made me think about valuing a piece of technology for exactly what you need, and not for the blinking lights, the bells and the whistles.
Heritage and Transference
We managed to uncover a bit of the heritage and nostalgia surrounding the bicycle. The older generation seems to have fond memories of the type of bicycles that were commonplace back in the day. We saw a common trend of this heritage being slowly and inadvertently lost to a new form of cycling culture.
Emerging Cycling Culture
As the bicycle culture of the past slowly fades away, we see how the bicycle is nowhere near dead, just in a different form. We witnessed how most riders were predominantly the old and the young. This section captures the spirit of the bicycle being carried on.
The week in Malaysia opened our eyes to the different forms and ways in which the bicycle continues to evolve within Malaysia. Do similar trends continue in Thailand and beyond? Can anything be said about a greater Southeast Asian story about the bike and the emergence of a new cycling culture distinct from the past? Does Thailand hold on to its heritage in a different way? Stay with the chakrayan chums to find out!
We’ve had many amazing experiences with the people we’ve met on our j0urney so far. We might say that these specific experiences were never our intention, our doing – they were what we hoped for but never dared to expect. Instead, in the wake of these experiences, we attribute them to chance, coincidence, to God, or to the kindness of humanity. I realised however, that we give ourselves less credit than we deserve. I think we have crafted, or at least put ourselves in the position to receive these experiences, simply through the act of bicycle touring.
We have cycled for 13 days and if all our eyes served us well, I can safely say that we have not encountered even one other touring cyclist on the road. We are rare, a novelty, maybe even a specimen that the locals take around to show off what they’ve found. We are foreigners touring on chakrayans.
Rao khon Singapore, kii Chakrayan bai Hanoi (We are from Singapore, cycling to Hanoi).
Singapore naksiksa (Singaporean students)
Phom khon India (I’m from India)
Chan khon America (I’m from America)
Each of these phrases are always greeted with raised eyebrows, an exaggerated “ohhhh”, and a quick repetition of what we just said by whom we addressed to the other locals gathered around. Amazement, curiosity, intrigue, wonder, surprise, excitement. They smile, and each to their own degree, shower us with food, water, lodging, conversation, joy and friendship.
We’ve gotten used to the sight of ourselves, rolling into town sweaty and grimy, with fully packed panniers strapped onto our bikes, reflective vests, good morning towels, yoga mats and sleeping bags. But for anyone else, we are a sight to behold.
This novelty is what attracts such experiences and such kindness; we chose this, consciously unwilling or unconsciously willing. They might be amazing people, but they definitely do not shower all of their kindness on just anybody. Amidst all our gratitude, we must not forget to thank ourselves and our bicycles (Gio, Trudy, Martha, and mine yet to be named) for going the distance and crossing that bridge that leads to people’s hearts.
P.S. forgive my bad Thai
One of the first phrases that any traveler must learn to say in the local language is ‘I don’t understand.’
The Thais say ‘Phohm mai khao jai.’
phohm is a way to refer to oneself
mai is a negation
khao means ‘enter’
jai is the heart
‘Phohm mai khao jai’, translated literally, means ‘It didn’t enter my heart.’
We like to think of ourselves as travelers, and not as tourists. We humor ourselves, much like little boys stuck in their pilot/pirate/policeman phase. We aren’t to be blamed, mind: the traveler is obviously cooler.
The tourist traps herself in her conveniences. She has flights to fly, sights to see, luggage to lug, and hotels to hote. The traveler revels in the very opposite. She packs two pieces of underwear and a toothbrush, and hopes to figure out the rest along the way. The traveler loses the way, drinks the water, and sees the things that Lonely Planet does not show. Like a gambler or a lover, she receives more because she gives more.
When the Chakrayan Chroniclers first set out, we wanted, in this way, to be vulnerable. We were all ready to ride the rough road and eat the funky food. We were four students (inclusive of beautiful white woman), hoping to ride our bicycles for thousands of kilometers. Of course things would go wrong! Our bikes would become seea (Thai for ‘broken or spoiled’), our stomachs would become seea, and we would definitely lohng the thaang (lose the way). We would be clueless, helpless, and dependent, with a language barrier to boot.
I couldn’t wait.
But then the rough road and the funky food gave us a miss.
It turns out vulnerability is something you must seek out. It does not just come when called.
Upsettingly enough, none of the bikers have fallen ill yet. It turns out the roadside stalls have been serving us factory-packaged ice and boiled water the whole time. When we lohng the thaang and ask for directions, the people are too polite to tell us that we are lost. They point encouragingly in the direction that we are headed, and assure us, with an oddly formed thumbs-up, that we’re on the right track. When we ask directions for Highway 408 from Songkhla to Nakhon Si Thammarat, they politely direct us to the more comfortable ferry that connects the same two cities.
Without even realizing it, we are being turned into tourists. We often find ourselves at 7-Elevens, museums, bubble tea stores, and once even at KFC. I realize only now how badly we must stand out, we with our spandex and our sunglasses and our fanny packs. We want to be lovers and gamblers, but I sometimes wonder if our roses are too garish and our banknotes too big.
As touring cyclists, the bicycle is undoubtedly central to the experience. The technology of the bicycle becomes our predominant method of transport. However, even with slightly more than a week of road under us, we have naturally begun to see it as more than just that. It’s almost silly how we give a steel frame and two wheels that much emotional investment. We call them names: Trudy, Martha, Gio, and (tentatively) Walla Walla. Those with new bikes worry about scratches, dings, dents and persistent KTM (Malaysian railway company) stickers. Anshuman even has his own ritual of elaborate bicycle maintenance that he religiously follows to keep Gio well-oiled and happy. For most of us, the bike goes beyond merely getting us from point A to point B. When we lock and chain them up at night, we do so not only because we fear losing our means of transport – but also because the bike holds sentimental and emotional value in its connotations of home.
While highly idiosyncratic and personal, these notions on our part may guide us towards a deeper understanding of man’s conception and relationship with technology. In some way, our concept of the bicycle has broadened beyond the utilitarian appreciation of its uses. Perhaps technology cannot exist in isolation – but must be assessed from its dynamic and relationship with its users, and its resultant effects. Arnold Pacey’s triangle of technology practice is a framework which may be helpful in helping us understand this phenomenon. Ultimately, Pacey believes that a technology never ever stays as merely that; the effect of man’s changing relationship with any technology has effects which ripple out through time, geographies and cultures. In response, Pacey invites us to look beyond the ‘restricted meaning of technology’ to notice the inevitable cultural and organisational aspects of technology, in the triangle of ‘technology-practice’
We’ll use the bike as an example to try to grasp this ‘general meaning of technology’.
Includes the technicalities of how the gears interact with the chain, crankset and casette to produce multiple speeds, how the inner tubes need to be of a certain PSI in order to perform optimally, how the braking different braking systems utilise (V-brakes, cantilever brakes etc.) different mechanisms in order to be effective
How the bike may develop as a status symbol which functions as a signifier of wealth, sophistication or privilege (those snazzy sport bikes?); how the bike may be used as a symbol or a carrier of deeper and less obvious ethical codes or values etc. (the green travel movement heralded by the return of the bicycle?); how the bike may enable a new and different kind of cultural movement, lifestyle or aesthetic (the huge impact of the bicycle in cities like Hanoi or Beijing?)
How the bike inadvertently or perhaps intentionally includes or excludes different social subgroups; how the use of the bike organises whole industries, employment options, economic prospects (what about the global movement of bicycle production from all over the world to predominantly China? How does that affect these countries?); how the bike enables or discourages certain forms of economic activity etc.
While we will undoubtedly learn much about the technological aspect of the bicycle on this trip – whether from bicycle maintenance 101, patching and replacing tubes, or from hunting down obsolete bike parts in Thailand – I believe that the real story lies beyond that first cursory look. We hope to glean more of the bike’s cultural and organisational aspects through photos and stories of the bikes we see along the way. We aspire to tell the compelling story of the technology-practice of the bicycle throughout Southeast Asia, and in so doing, hopefully uncover the bigger story of its peoples and its places.
We stop at least four times per day to eat. On each of these occasions, the three water bottles I have consumed in the last hour start to catch up with me, and I ask to use the hong nam (toilet).
While this practice began as merely a mundane necessity, it has become one of my favorite parts about stopping.
Most shop/ roadside restaurant owners use portion of their house as their business. What separates their professional and personal lives is as simple as a thin curtain, a door, a staircase.
I adore seeing the innards of these homes.
The bathroom is a particularly ‘human’ space, what with the disheveled toothbrushes and near-empty shampoo bottles. But often I even get to walk through other rooms on my way to the hong nam (toilet).
A fish tank with the largest luohan fish ever
A shadowed living room-cum-bedroom-cum-kitchen
A dusty lipstick among piles of what had to be Grandmother’s jewellry
Walls upon walls of laminated family photographs
Laundry forgotten on the backs of chairs
Holographic Mickey Mouse images and coloring books
Personal shrines for Grandfather, a specific monk, a deity, all of the above
Many many very large box-televisions
There are two beautiful things about these moments:
1) They are accidental, happenstance, raw, real, honest. The path the hong nam happens to be where and how it is. The homes are not prepared for my visit, and I appreciate them for their clutter, or emptiness.
2) They are unrecorded. Even while writing this, it is difficult for me to remember the details of the insides of the unlit homes. I never think to bring my camera (and it would be intrusive), and thus the full splendor of the home exists, for me, only in the moments I observe it.
I love to see where the dishes are washed, which possessions are most central in the room, which pictures are on the walls, how they are slanted, how the headscarf looks when its hanging over the cupboard door…
Yesterday I sat at a small concrete table, underneath a blue tarp awning in Songkhla, writing postcards and smiling to myself as the rain jutted fiercely out of the sky. I watched as school children scampered past, with their Scouts-like uniforms, clean-cropped hair, and swinging leather messenger bags.
I’d be kidding if I said I wasn’t drenched. A Grandmother motioned for me to come under her awning. We sat in silence as her saucer-eyed toddler Grandson sneaked his cupped hand out under the sky to feel the rain drops.
People might think that people-watching is a creepy hobby, but I disagree. We want to see how other people are naturally, how they live, how they think.
I often find that my presence (being a white female traveler) alters the spaces I enter too greatly for me to really see them. I get frustrated by how self-consciousness, and I cannot focus on the details.
Under this awning, in the shadow of the rain, I felt enormously relieved – I was watching without being watched.
So, whether it is:
gazing upon school children as they flood the streets to buy their favorite electric green drink and fried after-school snack, or
catching my reflection in an anonymous yet oh-so-personal dresser mirror, or
quietly following behind our new-found monk friends as they receive their morning alms,
these mute glimpses show me the daily, the mundane – things which can never rightly be told with our few Thai words or many exaggerated gestures.
On my way back from the hong nam I linger just a while longer – not ready to face the bright sunlight, the bicycles, the journey, the movement. I breathe in all the somehow-familiar newness and feel grateful for all that means ‘home’.
Tai ruup dai mai? (Can I take your picture?) That’s one of the most common phrases we use so far on our journey. From kway teow soup stall owners to baby cyclists, we want pictures of them all.
At first, it was not easy to use the phrase (learnt, memorised and prepared for only because of our dear Professor Andrew Johnson) due to the fear of rejection that is usually not uncalled for. In Singapore, if you try to take a picture of someone, you’re either –
1. A nuisance
4. A pervert
They will never have time for a picture anyway; they are too preoccupied with their busy lives. It’s like waving a huge “Ain’t nobody got time for dat” sign in your face. Through the larger cities that we passed through, it felt almost the same. Who would trust a stranger to not do something creepy with their picture?
However, responses were totally different in the countryside and small towns. Each Tai ruup dai mai? was greeted with a Dai! Dai! They never say no. Parents shove their children at you, asking you to Tai Ruup while the kids stare in wonderment. People stop, get off their bicycles for a posed photograph, and also a conversation. albeit a slightly incomprehensible one. People invite you into their celebrations, serve you food, and command you to take pictures of them shaving a new intitiate (monk) from the family.
Of course we being foreigners plays a huge part of their intrigue and hospitality, but beyond that, I can’t figure out why. Are they simply showing their people, their cultures off to the world? Do they love the interaction with people who speak funky Thai? Is it the rarity of cameras and having their pictures taken? I, having always been a city dweller, cannot comprehend as of yet – and apparently, cannot imitate.
I was leading the group on a stretch of road when we were signalled to stop by a guy who parked his van in front of us. As I got closer he waved his point-and -shoot camera around with some pointing action – a universal, non-verbal Tai ruup dai mai? I slowed down, but then decided to ignore him and continue on ahead, leaving him in the dust of our chakrayans. In that moment, I thought he was all of the three things I listed above, and did not want to take the risk.
We’ve been taking and receiving a lot on this trip so far, although it has only been about a week. Hospitality, experiences, memories… And I couldn’t even give one guy with a van and a camera a chance to keep in a photograph the memory of meeting four touring cyclists on the road.
We’ve just taken a few pictures with the newly initiated monks, but these reside not in my camera, but theirs. Maybe that’s a start.
Dear readers and vicarious cyclists!
We’ve crossed the border! We’re currently at a dingy internet cafe near Nahkon Si Thammarat, Thailand – typing away and hiding from the midday sun.
Brace yourselves for the next flood of blogposts!
The Chakrayan Chums,
Allowing you to experience the cycling life (without the abrasions and the sun burns)
We’ll leave you with a video of us speaking Thai (or at least trying to)
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