We're making one last foray into Laos to pick up the bike after Dave's collarbone's three week recovery in Thailand. Back on the plane to Ubon Ratchathani, back on the bus through customs into Laos, back on the bus some more into Pakse. Jerome at the Pakse Hotel has generously allowed us to store the motorcycle even though we never actually stayed there. In appreciation and self-indulgence we treat ourselves to a decadent couple nights' lodging at the Pakse. As if reuniting with the motorcycle wasn't heaven enough for Dave.
It's April 5. This marks the one year anniversary, more or less, of the trip's inception. According to original plan, right around now we'd be heading back home. In reality there's a long way to go. Adding in an extra month to more fully explore Pakistan, an extra 3+ weeks to recover from various and sundry minor illnesses, and an extra month to recover from the fractured collarbone has put us a quarter year behind schedule. We have to skip Cambodia but still plan to travel through Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia. That's gotta be another 8000 miles. Dave never loses inspriation, but sometimes Erika questions whether she has the energy to keep on going. Sometimes it feels like she doesn't; but she doesn't intend to quit, either.
We stroll through town, checking out the indoor market near the famous Pakse hospital and watching people loading stuff on buses bound for elsewhere.
You wonder where they're going and what kind of lives they lead. There's so much you can't understand when you don't speak the local language. You can only wonder, making up stories about fishermen wrestling with sea monsters as you savor your last Lao dinner on the dusky Mekong.
We're finally on the bike again! For Dave, that's home sweet home enough. In addition, today is his birthday. Wow.
Back in Thailand we take advantage of one of those huge petrol stations with a multiplex of food stalls surrounding the gas tanks. Can't say enough good things about Thai food. Once again we spend a night in Ubon Ratchathani where Erika befriends some guys on the street. They're happy to have her try out her new camera on them. Hey, black and white.
Having already spent more than enough time in Bangkok, we take a highway that circles its suburbs for hours. The plan is to head straight south, but this has become one of the longest riding days of the trip so far. Exhausted, we find a hotel in another petrol megaplex in the middle of a bunch of salt flats. And what the heck function on the new camera is THIS supposed to be?
Destination: coast. Cha Am is the first spot, a long narrow beach fronted with frondy pine-like casuarina trees. It's packed with local families, bumper to bumper traffic and a bevy of seaside restaurants. Waiters cross the street bringing lunch to beachcombers under plastic across the way. Picnic-ers drink beer and nosh on seafood as they watch the kite sellers, horse riders and jet skiers parade across the beach.
Next, it's on to more touristy upscale Hua Hin. This doesn't seem as interesting so we head slightly out of town to check out the view from a temple. It looks better from up here.
Onward ho to Prachuap Khiri Khan, an untouristy town with two big bays. The prettier bay has just one pricey hotel so we head for a small guesthouse on the other side. Oddly, getting from one bay to another entails a drive through the military base. Dave wants a good swim but muddy sludge hiding under the tranquil water makes for a less than ideal dip. We have dinner at a little beach shack on the sand across from the guesthouse.
Thoughts of another delectable gas station breakfast inspire an early start. The road heads inland over lush tropical hills; the small elevation gain results in a slight but pleasant drop in temperature. Communities are encouraged to offer local products to passers-by as a way to create economic self-sufficiency: bananas, rambutan fruit, sugar cane. Apparently they grow dim sum here as well.
Laem Song National Park is a remote beach 10 kilometers off the road through dry fields and narrow root-clogged waterways. A small cluster of cabins constitute the resort which was rebuilt after the 2004 tsunami. It seems abandoned save the manager, who tells us he watched as a 7 foot wave broke through the window; and 2 French guys helping rebuild fishing boats in the village . The manager says property damage was widespread though fortunately no one died in the area. Yet one of the French men recently lost his wife. He is unsurprisingly sad. It rains heavily all afternoon. Erika walks near the retaining wall washed out of place by the tsunami and thinks about stuff.
It's a little cooler the next day after the rain. Continuing to pursue the goal of a good swim, we pass through Phang-Na with its interesting limestone formations to the total yuppie tourist beach at Ao Nang.
This isn't the place to be either. The farther down the beach you get from Ao Nang, however, the better it gets. Muslim Thai families predominate on this beach, with Westerners sticking closer to Starbucks. Islam shows a stronger presence in southern Thailand, with mosques dotting the countryside and head-covered teenage girls working the pumps at petrol stations. Here, teenage girls in headscarves and shorts stand knee-deep in the ocean flirting with boys. Signs along the beach give directions for evacuation in case of another tsunami. Since it's low tide, we walk way out to the little islands under warm gray skies. We bob around happily for hours, enchanted by lovely views back into the curving green-fringed bay.
Next beach stop is Pakmeng, a similar but not quite as tourist-friendly waterfront. Most visitors to this lively souvenir-stall-and-skewered-squid-studded spot seem to be Thai day-trippers as we can only locate one place to stay. The Mak Mie's (also spelled "Mag Mai" on a sign three feet away) peaked pastel cabins are quaint from the outside, though the spring-less bed must have been designed for someone with a bit more padding. Dave takes a quick swim through some mucky water before a nice fish dinner on the beach.
Our last day in Thailand's a long ride across the southern peninsula to the east coast. Today is Songkran, or Buddhist New Year. This is celebrated with various rituals, like flour paste applied to the face and body to ward off evil and vigorous water throwing to symbolize cleansing. People wearing their brightest clothing parade happily in the bright sun along the way. Small trucks decorated for the occasion carry religious statues and monks in their orange wraps.
Passing cars and bikes are prime targets for water mischief. Families stand with hoses by the roadside and trucks laden with water barrels and soggy people douse passers-by. Motorcycle tourists are not excepted.
We have skipped the larger tourist resorts such as Phuket and Ko Samui. Our final stop will continue that tradition. This road heads off through small Muslim beachside communities, clearly less well-off than their neighbors to the north. Palm trees line narrow strips of sand that parallel the blue blue ocean forever. There's an unfortunate amount of trash. Fish dry on makeshift tables in the sun.
Some of Thailand's southern provinces were originally part of Malaysia until annexation in 1909. In the last few years unrest has taken place in Narathiwat between Muslim insurgents and the government. At this time the area appears calm. Narathiwat has a big nice public beach on a round bay with lots of casuarina trees and picnic-ing families but feels more like a city where people live than a vacation getaway. It is famous for beautiful traditional fishing boats used for an annual race honoring the king.
There is a really comfortable hotel room with air conditioning and a convenience store jam-packed with tasty Thai junk food. What more could you want? A Chinese place around the corner serves whole fried fish under a full moon, on an open-air deck built over the river. We wake up the next morning refreshed and ready for a date with Malaysia.
Posted by Erika Tunick at April 07, 2006 10:00 AM GMT
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