While I was busy writing, Katy was busy doing something else: growing our firstborn. George Wollage Pratt IV is excited for his first tour, and hopefully next year we’ll be able to do some Touring Trio. He hasn’t had a pain au chocolat yet, but it won’t be long.
If you saw this email and thought, “Are they cycling again?” then all I can say is, unfortunately no. I’m at home, sitting on my couch, churning through my fourth year of medical school.
I enjoyed writing this blog so much, and have such wonderful memories of this trip, that I decided some time ago to write a book about our travels. Many years from now this website will likely no longer exist, but I’m hoping that this book will, and that it will be sitting on a shelf somewhere, so that when I say to Katy, “What was the name of that town in northwest Italy with the great pizza?” I’ll be able to grab this off the shelf and say, “Oh right, Udine.” The book, aptly titled The Touring Tandem, is just about finished up, and will be available on Amazon sometime next week.
Yesterday I went into the hospital to get a new MCard – my University of Michigan ID card. I needed a new one, not only because the old one may have been lost, but because my old photo isn’t exactly “professional” looking. School starts next week and Katy has already unburied the oft-mentioned topic of, “Clayton, what’s your hair management plan going to be this year?”
I left the medical school and began the long walk down the main hospital corridor and just kind of stared at everyone. They were all in such a big hurry – responding to pagers, hurrying off for a ten minute lunch before returning to a lonely research lab in a far corner of the hospital or discussing treatment plans with a barrage of humans often referred to as a “healthcare team.” In the midst of the mayhem one clear idea settled on my mind: swimming north of Vang Vieng, Laos, teaching evening physics classes in Gorakhpur, India, instruction on proper cheese eating in Morlaix, France, the baklava specialty shop in Sarajevo . . . they are all so far away now. Our trip really was “out there.” At the time, these places felt so normal, they were our life, but now it’s an I-can’t-believe-that-all-happened memory. We loved every bit of it.
We reached 10,000km somewhere between Hite and Blanding, Utah, headed east on UT-95. We stopped, did a dance, and then kept on pedaling. At the top of the next climb – which was a hefty one – a driver had left a Belgian Ale sitting on top of a $1 bill on the white line. It was a nice little reward for the largest climb of the last leg of our journey. A few hours later in Blanding, a lady waved us down and thanked me for wearing my 7-11 tank top and advertising her business. She then gave us 20 or more coupons for Big Gulps, Big Bites and Slurpees. Even in Utah, generosity and friendliness are around each corner.
At a WS home in Moab, Katy and I sat down and updated our budget. We had $41 left. We made the decision to drive back to Utah – after a week of camping – and stick to our budget and avoid the horrendously scary roads of Southern Utah. Utah was, by far, the scariest place to cycle and we figured it would be nice to arrive home without a serious accident.
On our drive home we came around the Point of the Mountain and entered Salt Lake County. It was disgusting; a traffic packed four lane highway with nothing but cement and bright lights and car dealerships as far as the eye could see. I missed the beautiful countryside of Europe and Asia. I missed small towns and quaint villages and the lady on the street corner cooking up some local vegetables. As we approached home, I turned on our favorite tune, and as we drove down Fortuna Way I turned up the volume and we sung as loud as we could, “Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me, Other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been. Truckin’, I’m a goin’ home. Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong. Back home, sit down and patch my bones, and get back truckin’ on.” I couldn’t have said it any better: What a long strange trip it’s been.
I got on my road bike a couple of days later and rode 95 miles and 12,000 vertical feet up Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood, Millcreek and Emigration Canyons. I love Utah.
And I guess that would be the end of the journey, but a few weeks later I found myself in Northern Indiana, riding a Vespa scooter home to Ann Arbor, leaning hard into the freezing cold crosswinds coming off of Lake Michigan in an attempt to not get blown off the road, taking a quick stop at K-Mart to get some warm clothes (and accidentally leaving my wallet there) and then finding myself stranded in Sturgis, MI without any money or an operational phone. I wandered around Wal-Mart for 3 hours until Katy came to the rescue.
Katy is the hero of our trip. I spent a short 45 minutes on the back of the tandem on the Burr Trail in Southern Utah. Forty five minutes. I couldn’t take it much longer. How she sat on the back of that tandem chugging through England’s hills, flying down Simplon Pass, non-coasting into Istanbul, through India, over Laos and on the absolutely terrifying Highway 89 is beyond me. But, she did. And because of her, our trip was fantastic. I love her.
I’m glad we went. I wish our trip was starting tomorrow. I’m looking forward to our next cross continent bike ride.
Thanks for reading over the past ten months, this will be your last email from The Touring Tandem. It’s been a pleasure sharing our travels. If we learned anything on this trip, it is that people matter. A warm shower, delicious meal, kind gesture, friendly wave or smiling hello never goes unnoticed.
Below is our cycling route. It’s not the exact roads we took, but the general idea. Labeled towns are ones we slept in, although the list is not exhaustive. Also, we went some other places, without our bike.
The party started in Heathrow. Le Tour de France in Yorkshire.
Then we got in a car and drove south to Bath to get back on “our schedule.”
Then a ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff.
In Sondrio we ran into a ten day rain forecast. So we jumped on a train and went to Bologna.
From Vienna we took a weekend getaway to Prague.
We were in Dubrovnik and Kotor for a week.
From Bandirma we took the ferry into Istanbul.
Continental Europe in Summary:
Then we trained/bused to Cappadocia and Ephesus and then flew to Trabzon, Turkey for a weekend of hiking in the Kackar Mountains. Then a week in Israel/Jordan. Then 36 hours in Dubai before finally landing in Kathmandu. A week of trekking with Elizabeth and my mother Charlotte in the Himalayas before getting back on the bike. (Delays because of a rear wheel that needed to be rebuilt.)
Then we got on a 36 hour train to Jaisalmer, in the far west of India.
After Delhi we went to RIshikesh for a week to do some yoga and “find ourselves.” Then a plane to Vientiane. (too many planes). Before all of the below happened my parents came out and we saw Luang Prabang and Siem Reap.
We were in Chiang Mai for a while, interspersed with a trip from Katy’s family and a couple of days at the beach in Phuket.
In Phitsanulok we got on a train to Bangkok, and then went to the beach in Krabi to cool off in the Andaman Sea before flying back to the States.
Right now we are in Los Angeles, doing this:
The next three weeks we will be in Southern Utah. Any suggestions on day hikes, overnight hikes, scenic roads, dirt roads, favorite hamburger shops, favorite campsites, or other must-do suggestions?
It’s with mixed emotions – and very sore quads – that I write this blog post.
TheTouringTandem is winding down. We’re getting old. Our days of international bike touring are over. (At least until we gather up a couple of children and come back out in ten years or so.) It’s sad, and it happened unexpectedly.
The other day we checked into our hotel room at 8:15am. After my cold shower, I got in my two hour nap. Katy fuddled around on her Kindle. Then we got to thinking. What are we doing? It’s too hot out there. I’m sweating out of my shins. (The other day I took off my spandex with a spatula.)
In the words of Hamilton – the Ham – Porter: This pop isn’t workin’, Benny! I’m bakin’ like a toasted cheese-it! It’s so hot here!
Or if you prefer Dr. Evil: It’s like sharks with frickin laser beams attached to their heads.
So we decided to change things up. After a scurry of online planning, we got in bed at 7:50pm. But as is never the case, neither of us could sleep. I laid in bed and lived through the memories of the road. They are good memories. Ones we will relive again and again. Often we will turn to each other and say, “Remember that ice cream shop in Ljulbljana? Remember the tea in Ayder? Remember Dartmoor? Or the Po? Wadi Rum? The sunset in the Kackars? Swimming north of Vang Vieng? The balkava? The prune crumble? Remember the guy with his sheep in the hills above Srebrenica? The furniture stores in Tirana? Remember that slice of pepperoni on our way out of Udine? The Indians who bought our dinner on Thanksgiving? My barber? Rebuilding our wheel in Kathmandu?
I tried to sleep, but my mind raced.
At 1am my alarm went off. I shot out of bed. The sun would be up in five and a half hours, and that meant heat. Lots of it. Gotta get a head start. We raced off to the twenty four hour 7-11 to stock up on water and sugar, but found the morning market just starting to set up. Who sets up a market at 2am? We found our favorite, khao lam, and grabbed four, jammed then in our panniers (panniers I will miss packing each day) and got on the road.
As we rolled out of the parking lot a lady waved and said, “Goodbye.” How did she know? How does she know we are leaving?
At the first intersection, three minutes down the road, we had to choose. Stick to our new plan or continue with the original plan. I wanted to stay on our bike and enjoy three more weeks cycling through Thailand and Myanmar. But, more than I wanted to stay, I wanted to leave. The heat is dreadful. No point finishing a great trip hiding inside under the air-con. We decided against enduring three weeks of stifling heat. I turned left.
We rode from 2:30am until 11:30am. It was a solid 9 hours in the saddle, 182km. Our longest day of the trip. Katy is tough. When I wanted to quit, I just thought to myself, if she is still out here, surely I can toughen up.
We hit a steep climb early, and my quads ached. Very, very sore quads. Then it was a gradual roll until 8am when the headwind picked up. It was a hot, muggy, hazy, ride-through-campfire-smoke, munch on Khao Lam kind of day. At 9am, when the sun was raging and our butts were sore, we turned to each, smiled, and said “Enjoy it, it’s our final kilometers in Asia.” We rode the last 20km slow. The heat felt great.
Katy is – as you might already know – tough. She’s strong – I don’t know many others who can jump on a bike at 2am and ride hard for 9 hours. She’s optimistic – when the sweat was flowing off of us, and I pulled off the road into the shade cause I wanted to die, I would turn around and it looked like Katy and got just got of a swimming pool, but she had a big smile on her face. When I came close to just hailing down a truck and hitching into town I thought, if my wife can do this, surely I can as well. Katy is tougher than nails. How she’s endured nine months on the back of a tandem, without any say in direction, speed, shifting, gears or brakes, I am speechless. I don’t know anyone else who’s done what she has done.
But this trip isn’t over, yet.
Our new plan: go to the beach. This morning we sat through an eight hour train ride (but only cost $2.25 each so it was worth it. Great discomfort to dollar ratio) to get back to Bangkok and in two hours we fly to Krabi. Beach time. Run around on some scooters. Eat, eat, and eat. Swim, swim, swim.
Then, after we’ve cooled off, we will reach our 10,000km goal. We have 587km (365 miles) left. On March 16th we will get to St. George, Utah and spend three or four weeks cycling through Zions, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches. If anyone wants to come down for some hiking, biking, eating, or campfire-lighting mallow-roasting let us know. We would love to have you.
It’s 11:04am and I’ve just woken up from my two hour nap. It seems that two hours is always the appropriate length for a nap, regardless of what time that nap starts. Today that nap started at 9am. Yes, that’s a bit early, but we’re on a different “schedule” as of late.
I blame the heat. Which is fair. The weather forecast for the next week is highs of 100, 100, 100, 101, 101, 102, 102. Around 10am it’s usually 90 degrees and by 11am I want to keel over and die. So we changed our schedule. Gone are the days of staying up past midnight watching Tour de France reruns on youtube, sleeping till 9am and getting on the road at 10am. Now it’s lights off at 9pm, wake up at 5 and then move in a frantic pace until the heat beats you into submission. I give, I give. (I then wake up from my nap around 2 and watch Tour de France reruns.) Today we didn’t have long to ride (my legs also felt pretty good from yesterday’s feast) and so when we arrived at our hotel at 8:15am we thought maybe we should get in another hour of cycling, but according to the map that would leave us in no-mans-land when the sun starts blazing. So we asked for an “early check-in” and I got started on my “afternoon” nap.
Questions you might be having:
Why don’t you just fly somewhere cooler?
We were “this close” to flying to Australia three days ago, but decided it was going to be too expensive. Also, we have a Myanmar Visa that we need to use. We wouldn’t feel so strong about going to Myanmar except this is our second Myanmar Visa. Our first one unfortunately expired before we were able to use it.
After Myanmar, where are you going?
We’re currently operating on two main agenda items: Clayton would like to reach 10,000 kilometers and Katy would like to spend a couple of weeks on the beach before flying home. (We are also interested in each other’s goals.) So that’s the current plan. Apparently the town of Dawei in Myanmar is supposed to have a truckload of beaches, and then we’ll make it to Krabi, Thailand and splash in the ocean – for a while.
What did we do yesterday?
At 11:30 we rolled into Li, a small town with two 7-11s. There are, in my opinion, only two redeeming features of 7-11 in Thailand. (FYI, 7-11 was introduced to Thailand in 1989, and currently has around 8,000 stores – just a bit fewer than the US.) Redeeming feature #1 – air-conditioning. Redeeming feature #2 – scales at most stores that operate for only 1 baht, and if you input your height it will also tell you your BMI (cause all cyclists are weight freaks.) At 11:30 we crashed into the 7-11. The A/C was leaking out of the motion-detected sliding door and I knew we were saved. Aahh. We ran inside and the four women at the counter (why it takes so many Thai people to work at Sev, I’m not sure – on 45th South it only requires a moderately overweight, unshaven, angry looking fella who would rather be outside having a smoke) started laughing at us. I laughed right back.
First up was chocolate milk: the refueling powerhouse of endurance athletes. I drank it as fast as I unscrewed the lid. Next was a Coke, because sugar and exercise are friends. Then I had a slurpee. Sitting on the floor in the back of the Sev, A/C blowing in my face, a nice cold slurpee. Things sure have changed.
Across the street Katy insisted on real lunch so we had pad thai and fried rice with chicken. We prefer to have khao soi for lunch but this Thai lady was not understanding our Thai pronunciation (which by the way, we’ve mastered – all five tones). We took our nap to the blissful A/C (well I napped, Katy would prefer to “read” instead of sleep) and then went out for dinner. For $6 we had some fried delicious things, stir fry pork with basil, fresh green mango salad, banana chips, an entire grilled fish, some greens, two bottles of water, a yogurt and a dozen bananas. Someone better tell the US of A about the prices we’ve been getting used to cause next month I think we’re going to run into an appetite-finance problem.
Current Odometer: 9,231 kilometers. Just a bit further to go. Then in a minute I’ll be free, and you’ll be splashing in the sea. Free.
For the past week Katy’s parents, Dave and Jeanette, and Katy’s sister and brother-in-law, Jen and Pat, have been “in town.” We like it when folks come “to town”. It mixes things up. I asked each of them to write 2 paragraphs for our blog. They wrote a page. I guess they’re just having that much fun.
I love my family. We have had such a great time when Clayton’s family has come to visit so I’ve been excited to share this experience with my family too. Back in August I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to because my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a difficult time and being far away only made it harder. Throughout the past six months I debated going home to support and help my mom, but every time I asked her or my dad about it they both insisted I should stay out here. Fast forward six months and my mom is post radiation, in remission, and sitting with me on a beach in Thailand. They have been beyond excited about this trip and I probably should apologize to their friends who have heard quite a bit about our adventures 🙂 I have always been very close to my family and this trip has been the longest I have been away so needless to say, I’m happy they’re here.
A few snippets:
After meeting at the airport we headed for the Bangkok Airlink Tram. We approached the ticket window. 35 Baht ($1) a person. Clayton walks up to pay and my dad whips out his new wad of Thai cash and hands Clayton a 20 thinking it was like a $20 bill back home. Clayton and I just start laughing. Clayton letting everyone in on the joke says, “Good of you to pay for 2/3rds of your ticket Dave, but I got this.”
Walking through the Sunday Street market Jen saw a row of chairs and a bunch of Thai women standing around. Her eyes lit up like Christmas morning when she realized these ladies are willing to take $2 in exchange for a foot massage. “If only I had this on my street back home…” She muttered before dozing off during massage #2.
At the Elephant Nature Park we walked along a river. Four of the five elephants were ahead of us and out of nowhere Marigold, a wily and spry elephant, comes trotting up next to Pat. She practically wrapped her trunk around his upper body and coyly tried to push him in the river. Pat started laughing and ran to get out of the way but Marigold kept playing all day. There aren’t many things that can bully Pat, but Marigold is one of them.
I’m on elephant writing duty, cause I’m the elephant lover. Katy heard about an elephant park where you get a lot of face to face time with the elephants. After some research we booked a tour with the Elephant Nature Park. Lek, the owner, has made it her mission to rescue elephants from being abused, begging on the streets, illegal logging, etc. She currently has 30+ elephants and offers tours where you can see the elephants be themselves – wild and free.
We had an hour ride up into the mountains where we met up with our tour guide “Mine”. After a safety briefing and getting food bags the elephants came walking up. There were 2 groups. The first had the 2 older elephants that didn’t like anyone else. Once they were off, the group of 5 came by. We got to go out and start feeding them watermelon and pumpkin. There was a 4 year old baby in the group named “Boy”. He had quite the personality and was very rambunctious. We walked with them to a field where we fed them sugar cane, bananas and wheat bread. They would toss the sugar cane aside in favor of the bananas until the bananas were all gone. Then the sugar cane was okay. Here we also learned about the history of some of our elephants. Marigold lived in an illegal logging camp. The owner of the park bought her for $3,000, her hips were dislocated and she had a broken leg. They showed us pictures of her malnourished and you could see her ribs all the way down her back. She had been here for 9 months and was happy to be free again.
From the field we took a walk with our elephants across the river to a trail through the jungle. It went around the back of the Elephant Nature Park. We hiked up the mountain to a tree house for a lunch of vegetarian dishes, fried foods, and fruit. From the tree house we looked over the park and could see the 30 other elephants there. It was so cool to be sitting, eating and then hear the elephants talk to each other. We hiked back down and walked with our group to the river. The elephants know that when you have a feed bag there is food for them. The will speed up and start using their trunks to feel around you and get you to give them a banana or ten. Their trunks are so powerful they can really push you around. All the elephants would follow you until you had no more bananas. It was funny to watch all the guys – Pat especially – get pushed around by these animals that just wanted a banana. It was surprising to learn elephants eat for 18 hours a day then sleep the rest of it. If they have tusks they will learn to sleep standing up to keep their tusks in perfect condition.
We got back to the river and we gave the elephants a bath. Basically you take a bucket, fill it up and splash them with water. Sounds crazy but was really fun and the elephants seemed to really enjoy it. The baby elephant then knew it was his turn to play in the river. He got down and rolled around and splashed all over. He looked so happy. We said goodbye to the elephants and headed out for white water rafting. It was more like pinball down the river. Most of the time the river was knee deep. And a lot of times they told us to “shake, shake!!” meaning jump up and down to dislodge the raft from some rock. We ended back up at the elephant nature park and met a few more elephants. It really was a very cool day. Being up close with these amazing creatures really was something that was unforgettable.
Throughout our travels here in Thailand I have been really intrigued by the driving and traffic. At first it seems chaotic and out of control, people dart between and around each other. Some vehicles move slowly, some way too fast. We experienced this first hand when we rented some scooters and scooted up the mountain into Doi Suthep National Park. It was amazing. After some initial nerves we soon fell into the flow of traffic, moving, dodging, and weaving through cars, buses, and fellow scooter riders. We had so much fun.
As I thought about it, I found it interesting how chaotic traffic with limited rules worked itself out. It’s commonplace on the roads here in SE Asia, but it’s also a great metaphor for life. Know where you want to end up, have a general idea what direction to take and although it might look crazy from the outset, once you’re in the thick of it things will be fine and everything will work out.
What a great idea!!! Let’s go to Thailand to meet up with Katy & Clayton!!
I was a little hesitant at first because I have traveled to foreign lands before and let’s just say – the local cuisine and I have not gotten along very well – I lose every time. Not Europe or the Caribbean but places like Mexico and Egypt – what some may call third world. So, what to expect in Thailand? I had been reading all about K&C traveling through the first 26 countries and eating their way through warm shower hosts, markets, family gatherings where they suddenly become part of the family, and of course the vendors along the way eking out a living by turning fresh fruits and vegetables into pure deliciousness.
We landed in Bangkok after 24 hours of flying and were delighted to see K&C waiting at the airport for us!! They led us to the subway and we took a 15 minute ride to the stop nearest to our hotel. “It’s just .8 miles away” one of them said so we set off with our “carry-ons” in tow and walked and walked to reach our destination. Along the way we passed dozens – maybe hundreds – of street vendors cooking up the most delicious smelling delights you can imagine. Spices you have never seen or smelled before being cooked as we walked by. Because it was so late and were fed on every flight, we got to the hotel and just collapsed.
The next morning the plan was to head to the Temple of the Emerald Buddah – Wat Phra Kaew and after visiting the temple we headed along the Chao Phraya River and found a street vendor making Thai Soup along with BBQ Chicken. We all dove right in and kept ordering more and more until I was watching a young Thai woman filling plastic bags with ice, dumping in different ingredients and closing them with a rubber band. Well, we had to have one of those – no maybe two or three. It was a delicious fruit punch. Then, the grazing started in a way I haven’t seen …. ever. Fried dough with pork something inside, fried chichen, spring rolls, coconut milk soups, sticky rice with mango, crepes like fried bananas with sweetened condensed milk, pad thai, pork skewers, corn on the cob, rice and beans cooked in bamboo stock and of course the smoothie drinks – banana, strawberry, pineapple, papaya, watermelon and of course mango – at least one mango smoothie for every one of the other types. And, you just keep ordering more because they are so delicious and, they are only 30 Baht which is the equivalent of $1. The food is sooo good and it is sooo cheap. We stopped at a roadside “restaurant” in Chiang Mai and we delicious dinner including several additional plates to try because “they’re only $2”. The six of us rolled out of that place stuffed to the gills for a total of $30 – unbelievable.
We also hit the night market in Chiang Mai and it was an unbelievable sight – miles of street vendors hawking their wares and others making delicious food. We started at one end and criss-crossed our way throught the sea of humanity buying things, eating more things (wow, those banana/Orieo sundays were amazing), getting foot massages, eating more things and then we looked up an Patrick was gone. We were pretty sure he hadn’t been abducted but we set off on a full court press of a search and came up empty-handed. I figured he had gotten diestracted by some of the amazing and beautiful crafts and wares but I offered to head back to the hotel in search of him. Before I left I took a video from the center of a crossroads of the market showing a 360 degree view of the escitement / hysteria happening in every direction. When I found him his story – and he’s sticking to it – was that we had ditched him while he was watching a Thai gentleman crafting a motorcycle helmet fashioned after the alien in Predator – complete with the face plate and dreadlocks coming out the back.
If it’s not the night market it’s the floating market or the flower market or the underground market or….. you get the picture… a market for every time of the day and week with millions of people eagar to sell you whatever it is you need – or don’t. Bangkok and Chiang Mai have been an amazing adventure and we’re sure to have more as the week comes to a close in the beautiful area of Phuket.
It’s a long way from eating in shifts, one child (who shall remain nameless) having thrown a fit because her food didn’t come first, won’t be consoled. Even when her food comes, she’s still too insulted to stop howling. So out to the car goes one parent while the other wolfs down food sitting with the other two model children only to switch so the other parent can eat. Oh and did I mention? Food is plain, not touching, mac and cheese cuisine usually half on the floor when the meal is over. Fast forward 25 years to Thailand to a modern kitchen complete with knives (whoa) with your kids trying to decide whether to make minced pork with holy basil or prawns in tamarind sauce. Who knew the payoff would be priceless?
Our Thai cooking school started off at the local market. We learned about Thai cooking staples: shrimp paste, oyster sauce, cane paste, fish sauce, palm oil, coconut cream (soup 25%, curry 50%, dessert 100% cream respectively), red and green chilies and the most amazing varieties of herbs and vegetables. Dave carries the fresh cracked coconuts and raw eggs tied in the customary plastic bag with rubber band. Apple, our instructor, jokes: 20 baht each broken egg!
After removing our shoes and donning aprons, we start with pad thai and drunken noodle. We speculate: how long before we actually get to eat? Food prep hasn’t been a factor at the street vendors. Chop, chop, smash, smash, how hot you like it? Apple doles out the appropriate number of “mouse shit” peppers (very small….apparently when they dry….you get the visual). They are hot little suckers! The pad thai is the big winner.
Then it’s on to chicken coconut milk soup and hot and sour roasted chicken soup. Then appetizers of green papaya salad with peanuts and savory minced chicken lap and spring rolls. Yum! All clear winners. The second and third round is dead even.
We prep dessert next. Oh wow. We each take 1 minute turns milking the coconut in a cheesecloth to produce the tasty milk/cream used in everything. Apple says its not eaten by its self, only used as an ingredient. Sampling the leftover milk, we concur. Clayton and Patrick each spend 5 minutes at the wok toasting coconut all for the garnish on the black sticky rice pudding. Dave and Jen carefully fold tiny bananas sliced lengthwise in a savory batter, easily broken while sliding into the hot palm oil. Katy and I prep sticky rice with mango, pretty easy once you get the special rice, soak it 6 hours and cook it in a bamboo steamer. We make sweetened condensed coconut cream and fold in the rice. Now the hardest part. The curries, red, green and Penang, require a mortar and pestle and a great deal of muscle. The smells are heavenly. Once the spices are made into a paste, it’s over to the wok. Oil is added to the paste and cooked. Then a little coconut cream. Stir, stir, stir over high heat, slowly adding more coconut cream between stirring constantly. Then reduce heat and simmer. The stir-fry was straight forward with the secret in the sauces. The minced pork with holy basil was the clear winner.
We sat down to dine on our last two entrees and dessert family style some of us using chopsticks, passing plates and judgement. When did these babies become adventurous, spicy-loving foodies? It’s one of those life moments that you know you will remember forever. We start to slow down and Apples offers to pack up the leftovers. She doesn’t realize Clayton’s just waiting to see what is left over. Then it’s gone.
In the course of five hours, these are our takeaways: 1. You have time to work up an appetite between courses with all the chopping, smashing, grinding, milking and cooking. 2. We are glad we didn’t have to do dishes, there were a billion. 3. Next time we get Thai takeout, we will appreciate it more.
All those years ago the only Thai things in my vision were bows and shoelaces and it was priceless then too. You never know when life is going to throw you a curve ball and I’ve had a doozy this past year with breast cancer. My takeaway is this: most of life is hard work, routine, keep your nose to the grindstone, dirty diapers kind of stuff. It’s not fun or glamorous but it affords us the most amazing, moments of euphoric joy. The amazing taste of Thailand with my family was one of those moments of pure joy!
We made it to Thailand! We crossed the border five days ago from Huay Xai, Laos into Chiang Kong, Thailand. Country #26. Whew! And what an exciting country it has turned out to be.
Things are different: we’re back to the left side of the road, multiple road options between towns, the towns are much wealthier, no more bamboo villages, no more babies and children on the side of the road, dogs are pets again, and lots and lots of thumbs ups.
Entering Thailand was not as easy as expected. Normally we pull up in the car lane and are treated like a private vehicle. This time we were told to walk our bike inside. It was like pushing our fully loaded tandem through the La Guardia airport. Once we got our necessary stamps we were then ushered to load a bus to be transported the three kilometers across the Mekong to the Thai border. We laughed when they directed us to the bus. There was no way our tandem was going to fit.
After some serious confusion, we went back to the private vehicle area. Five different officials looked at our passports and then at our bicycle. Eventually we feigned misunderstanding and took off pedaling toward the border. We didn’t make it far before we were stopped at the toll collection booth and then we noticed a police car driving towards us. Oh dear, I hope we don’t end up in a Laos prison, although that would be quite an experience. A few minutes later we had our very own police escort to Thailand. With all the fellow bike tourers we have met lately, you think riding a bicycle across the border would be standard procedure. It’s not apparently.
After a few hours of cycling from the border, we were in a pickle. The ATMs in the small towns refused our cards. We had no Thai money, no water, and no food. In walks Thai generosity. Finally we pulled into a substantial town and saw a 7-11 (they are, unfortunately, everywhere here – I mean honestly, who likes cycling around the world only to feel like you are on 45th south) I walked in, saw they had a credit card machine, and hungrily gathered a bunch of food and water. I ordered two paninis, some hot momos, and glugged the water as they rang me up. I swiped my card. Nothing. I swiped again. Still nothing. Oh no. My card doesn’t work. Crap, I am already eating and drinking their food.
The cashiers don’t speak English and finally a woman in the store comes over and confirms my suspicion. Only cash. I explain I have Lao Kip and US Dollars but no Thai Baht, but they won’t take Dollars or Kip. I’m on the verge of tears. Then another woman comes over, touches my shoulder, and nods at me. At first I don’t understand what is going on. The English-speaking customer says this woman wants to pay for your food. Tears well up in my eyes. I tell her I will give her US$ and she just smiles and shakes her head. I profusely thank her and practically tip her over with a hug and gratitude. I am two feet taller than her.
Stunned, I walk out of the 7-11 and tell Clayton. As I am telling him a Thai gentleman on a motorcycle asks us where we’re from and where we’re going. Impressed, he tells us he has cycled to Laos before and we discuss the mountainous countryside. He invites us to his shop for some coffee. Kong is alight with friendliness. He used to live in Bangkok but moved to Ban Lao to help with his family’s coffee business. He taught us a few Thai phrases, including how to barter: “Lot dai mai”. This will definitely come in handy when my sister Jen arrives this weekend! He made us drinks and gave us bananas for the road.
Several kilometers down the road, Kong returns on his motorcycle. He directs us toward Chiang Rai and then gives us dried bananas and bracelets for luck on our journey. He then wishes us well and we continue on.
Our day only gets better when we met up with Edouard in Chiang Rai. Edouard is a fellow WS user and our sort-of host. We contacted him about staying at his place in Marmagne, France. He was already out on a bike tour but suggested we stay with his parents. If you have been reading our blog then the words “Prune Crumble Dessert” should ring a bell. This was Edouard’s parents. We absolutely loved them, their farm, their food, their dessert, and their conversation when we were at their house in July. We felt like we knew Edouard because of it. He emailed us a few days before and we arranged to meet in Chiang Rai. We had a nice hot pot dinner with him and Robbie, his new cycling companion.
That night in Chiang Rai, Clayton got nervous. With all the nice tarmac we had experienced and heard about in Thailand, Clayton felt like our adventure days were coming to an end. He likes the unexpected, the out of the ordinary, and the possibility of failure. Plus, my family is coming at the end of this week so we have time off the bike in our future. So, he decided, it was time for an adventure. He found a hard pack dirt road that followed a river for a ways, but then, according to “terrain” mode on Google Maps, goes over a mountain. He then looked on gpsies.com (great website) and decided there would be a steep, dirt road section for “a while.” “We can push if we have to,” he told me. And push we did. It took us two hours to push our bike over the last 2 miles, maybe 20-25% grade dirt roads, and a river crossing or two. Despite the difficulty we did have a beautiful ride following a river through small villages in the Thai countryside. So all in all, it was a great adventure. And hopefully will get the “need for an adventure” out of Clayton’s system for a while.
This wouldn’t be a blog post without a mention of food. The food in Thailand is superb. There is quite a bit more variety here than in Laos. We came across some fried chicken on the road and Clayton could not believe he hadn’t heard people talk about Thai fried chicken. Jamaica = fried chicken. The Delta = fried chicken. And now, Northern Thailand = fried chicken. Also, grilled sausage and pork, curries, pad thai, noodle soup, and more. We found a shop selling only Mango and Sticky Rice. This is my new fave. We celebrated Valentine’s Day with three plates for 50 baht each ($1.75). Noodle soup for lunch each day, $0.95. Good thing those mountains in Laos made us hungry.
Just put one foot – or one pedal – in front of the other. That’s what I told myself. I dragged my sorry, but getting smaller, behind up another 10% grade in the heat of the day and wondered if it would end. You never know when the windy, mountain roads of Laos will offer respite. We set out at 8 am this morning from our quaint riverside bungalow in the small town of Vieng Phouka, 120km from Huay Xai, the Laos:Thailand border town set on the Mekong River. Despite our early start, or maybe because of it, the day was long and hot.
To add to the tough day, our timing chain kept coming off (I think because our pedals hit some rocks the other day which has loosened things up) which completes the short recipe for Clayton’s anger. After the third incident he screamed “Worthless dipshit bastard son of a bitch,” (my apologies to both our mothers and grandmothers reading this.) He climbed off and attempted to throw the bike to the ground but I steadied it—as I was still on it. He then kicked the front pannier and I told him to cool off. Clayton has a temper and it irritates me. He gets angry at our bike and its problems, and oh it has problems. Small problems that don’t incapacitate the bike are the worst, because they never get fixed and never go away. They are a nuisance each and every day.
I’d fix them if I knew how, Clayton will fix them eventually, but not today. But I don’t complain, I do hardly anything to maintain the bike. He’s fixed more problems than I could have imagined, so despite his temper tantrum, I let him keep cycling. However, I did ride the fully loaded tandem past him, as he fumed down the highway, telling him he could get over his anger or walk to Huay Xai. He got over it. I was glad – the long, hot, mountainous day continued and it took both of us to drag our heavy tandem over the hills.
After five hours, and too many hills, we reached our final opponent: a 12% grade for three kilometers. It was too steep. And our bodies were empty, empty of carbs to fuel our muscles. We also rode those five hours on only two water bottles and a handful of sticky rice. Each turn of the pedals was painful. We stopped. We were beat. Clayton took the bike and I walked. Even walking was hard, I’m not sure how Clayton got our stuff up that hill. Around the corner Clayton left a water bottle on the side of the road. I like mountains, but I like knowing where the top is. But this road winds and winds, tempting me with multiple false summits. When will it end? At the very next restaurant Clayton had half a dozen spoonfuls of soy sauce before his noodle soup. When you’re debilitated in the heat, its easy to drink too much water, further exacerbating low sodium levels which can cause hyponatremia (or so Clayton says.)
This past weekend we stayed with René Roesler in Luang Namtha. René is our first Warmshower host since Delhi. He did not disappoint. Crispy, thin crust pizza, sauna with the locals, muesli with yogurt and mangos at the local bakery, trekking in the jungle, swimming in the river, lunch of khao niao, pork larp, and joew bong on banana leaves, more sauna time, burgers, soft-serve ice cream in a waffle cone ($0.62), a bonfire looking over the Nam Nga, then a leisurely Sunday afternoon at a waterfall sunbathing, while I read and Clayton wrote. Heavenly. By the time this trip ends, Clayton might write as many books as he’s read: one. We planned to leave Sunday afternoon but a free bed and buy 2 get 1 free ice cream cones forced us to stay another night. René is from Germany and works for the German Development Council. He oversees micro financing for 135 surrounding villages. He lives in the perfect place for exploring on foot and bicycle. Every weekend he has the same routine: run, hike, bike – and then go to the sauna. We might have to move here. At the very least we would recommend it to others. (Hint, hint Fullers.)
Tomorrow we cross Friendship Bridge No. 4 and will be in Thailand. Country #26. Wow. Despite enjoying the moment, it dawns on me how quickly our time is passing on this incredible adventure. Who would have thought time would pass this fast? Don’t worry. We still have a solid two months and haven’t bought any return plane tickets, so who know how this journey will end.
one bike's adventure . . . . . . . . . two along for the ride