Friday, April 16, 2010

Some Quality Time with Nan

12/2/10 – 11/4/10
One night some time ago we met an Irish guy, who sat and described his philosophy to us. Not in a preachy, crackpot way, otherwise we wouldn’t have paid much attention. No, he explained that many years ago, after doing some basic calculations, he realised he was using only seventeen and a half percent of his income for living expenses, with the rest going towards work related expenses. So he got to thinking, that if he simply wanted to give up work, he only had to find that seventeen and a half percent somehow. He went on to say that by slowing down the pace of his life, he found he could reduce his expenses further, and that he also subscribed to this philosophy while travelling.

Sorry, you were waiting for the punch line? You want to know where he got that seventeen and a half percent? Join the club. Admittedly he was Irish, but after a year on the road we’d already reached some of those same conclusions ourselves, especially in regards to fuelling and maintaining the bikes. So lately we’ve been asking each other whether we should stick to our original plan – ship the bikes from Bangkok to India this year – or slow things down a bit and hang out in Southeast Asia until next year. Lucas really wants to see India, but Ann is ambivalent, especially after the Indonesian experience, so its not a straightforward decision. We have about a month to figure it out though, so right now we decide not to decide.

Crossing back into Thailand, our more immediate concern is negotiating the carnet thing again, which seems to be different almost every single time. This time the Thais want to stamp them, even though they’re not recognised here (they have their own import/export paperwork). So Ann hands over our two expired carnets, which the self-important customs guy proceeds to sign with a flourish.


During the next few days we decide to make our way north to Nan, a town we bypassed last time on the way to Laos. The road hugs the Mekong for a while, before heading vaguely northwest, up into the hills.

The atmosphere is very different from a month ago; the weather has started to heat up and the air is thick with smoke, which we assume at the time is blowing in from Laos.

We spend a night on the streets of Uttaradit after an eerie midnight ride through fire-ravaged forest, during which we discover for the first time, that much of the deterioration in the quality of the air is actually being caused by the Thais themselves. Outside the 7Eleven we observe bleary-eyed the setting up of the Sunday morning market, whose first customers begin trickling in around 4.30am.

This only reinforces our view that Southeast Asia is a region populated by insomniacs.

Arriving in Nan at last, we find it not unlike many other concrete Thai towns. Maybe its by government decree, but the Thais seem to design their buildings like a baker shapes cookies; there isn’t much work for architects here.

Nan’s appeal isn’t in its architecture however, although it does have one or two interesting wats.

What you do find in this largely farang-free town, is that the lazy pace of life gradually creeps up on you, until all of a sudden you realise you’ve been here several weeks. You meet long-term travellers who have succumbed to its charms and return regularly to escape the northern hemisphere winter, or likewise expats, who have made their homes here.

You find yourself slipping into the local rhythm of life - getting out early in the morning to do your thing, before escaping the heat of the afternoon under the shade, by the river.

You suss out the local food you like and where to get it. The Chicken Man just down the road, who also doubles as the Sticky Rice Man. The Sausage Lady. The Dessert Lady. The Pad See Ew Man, who practises his English with you. The Pad Thai Lady and her husband, who tease you because they think Pad Thai is all you ever eat. The Peanut Man. The Banana Lady. The Mango Lady...

Paer is a refugee from the Swedish winter, and every six months he and his wife bring back about fifteen kilos of cheese, sausage and wild mushrooms, which lasts them until they head back in the spring. They generously share some of their stash with us, atop slices of homemade bread.

Food is also a big part of any festival here. But what you really notice in Thailand, amongst the seemingly gentle and quietly spoken people, is the loudness of the music. Even at small gatherings, its super loud. Concert loud. Most Thais seem oblivious to this, or have industrial deafness, one of the two.

One night we find ourselves sitting on bamboo mats on the grass, eating street food with the locals. Beside the ruins of the old city wall, a school group plays traditional music to entertain the crowd. Its not really our cup of tea, just something different for a change, but when they finish the MC decides to put on a recording. He then proceeds to plug the source into a little loudspeaker, in front of which sits a microphone, which then feeds back into about five thousand watts of PA system. You can see where this is heading. After about ten seconds, the Thais next to us are holding their ears in pain. After another ten, people start to get up and leave. We look at our neighbours in disbelief, but they just laugh and shrug their shoulders in acceptance. The moral of the story? Always bring a set of earplugs to a Thai gathering of more than half a dozen people.

Sometime during the first few weeks in Nan, Ann decides she needs a change of colour. Lucas is pretty dubious, but she’s adamant there’s no way she’s going to India as a blonde. She makes one concession and lets him pick the colour, but he’s only ever known her as a blonde, so its a bit of a shock.

Its also during this time, courtesy of Jay and Tania, that we hear about an English teaching job in Laos. So we “apply” and are told we have the job, pending approval of the details by the company. Its a six month contract teaching the office staff of the newest dam project in Laos. Figuring the rest is a formality we wait to hear back, and thoughts of India start to fade.

Nan is so laid back and uncomplicated that we’re putting on weight, so we start going for walks down to the river in the morning before it gets hot. At one point Ralph and Laiad, the guesthouse owners, ask if we'd like to take their dog with us, so we’re joined by Dookdik the agoraphobic retriever, who starts at every sound, is nervous around all the other street dogs, and pulls us along like a freight train until she wears herself out.

She’s at home in the river though.

Did we say it was hot here? During the day, the thermometer reaches forty-three in the shade, and at night it remains in the thirties. We could switch on the aircon in the room for an extra $3.50 a day, but we tough it out. Hey, that’s practically our food budget for the day. C’mon...

Things are hotting up in Bangkok with the Red Shirts, so the local constabulary are on full alert. Its hard to imagine a Molotov cocktail being hurled into Nan’s local government administration compound, but the polis are ready just in case. It gets a bit annoying when we’re sitting in the bus shelter across the street pinching their wifi, and some overzealous cops lean over our shoulders to inspect what we’re doing. Sometimes we chat with them. Other times Lucas slams the cover down on the laptop to give them the hint.

The time to make a decision about India is way past now. In fact we seem to have decided by just letting things slide. Without actually making a decision. Syd still has no news for us about Laos, and the whole thing seems to have become embroiled in company politics, with some in the company believing the job should go to the local school instead. All very commendable, but almost without exception the local English teachers in Southeast Asia speak terrible English, so its doubtful that its the best long-term solution for their employees. Or maybe that’s just a case of sour grapes on our part. Nevertheless, the whole saga has dragged on so long we’ve also reached the point where our Thai visas are about to expire. So Plan B is to head south for Malaysia and hang out there for a few months.

With two thousand kilometres to ride, we figure a week should get us there in time, and so with a week to spare, reluctantly we get back on the bikes and leave Nan behind.

Within a couple of hours, our out-of-condition arses are protesting. Ann hasn’t ridden for seven weeks, and the longer we stayed in Nan, the less we rode and the more we walked. Over the next few days we establish a routine. Leave early, but only stay out on the road until midday, as the heat and the headwinds make riding feel like the interior of a blast furnace. Find a hotel as quickly as possible, dump our gear in the room, turn up the aircon, shower, then collapse for the rest of the afternoon – preferably face down, as we don’t have any of those rubber ring thingies handy to sit on.

The heat is unrelenting until Prachuap Khiri Khan, where the promise of sea breezes and some beach time detain us for a couple of days.

From here its a toss-up whether to head straight for the border near Penang, or keep following the coast down through southern Thailand to Kota Bharu. On the one hand we haven’t been this way before, but on the other our backsides silently protest the extra kilometres, and oh yeah, this part of Thailand tends to attract militant secessionist activists who regularly set off bombs in public places. But Kota Bharu wins out in the end, so we head south through countless army checkpoints, which are manned by serious looking assault-rifle-toting soldiers.

The countryside is refreshingly green after the dry brown northern Thailand landscape, but the feeling is all Malay. In fact if you’d simply dropped us into the middle of southern Thailand, we would have assumed we were in Malaysia. A fact which leads us to feel that we’re gently being eased out of one country and into the next...

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations you two :)
    Have just read this and the previous story and you have "mastered the style' of story telling.
    Really enjoyed the events that has happened and the pics Luke.
    Email comming soon ......UM!! I hope
    Love n