After our unlucky start in Thailand with persistent belly aches and mechanical trouble we make an optimistic departure from Khon Kaen. Cyrils bike is as good as new and I am eager to reach Phetchabun.
This provincial town was my home for only a short while but I have very good memories of the place and its people. It is nothing special but therefor all the more exemplary of everyday Thai life, or more specifically Isaan life. Isaan is Northeastern Thailand, an area where many Lao people settled and as a result quite close to Laos in culture and language. There are not as many tourists as in other areas. It is rural and the pace of life is pretty laid back.
Sharing a camp site with a monk
We take the only possible road, a flat and straight line from Khon Kaen to Lom Sak. It is a busy four lane highway but there is enough space for us on the shoulder. Still, the drivers are real maniacs with a need for speed and the constant drone of traffic wears us down. We long for quiet country roads. In the end I put in headphones and we thunder along the flat road at more than 20kph. As the music is thumping so are our legs, and we make 112km that day.
In China and Laos we became a bit apprehensive about wild camping but we are determined to do lots of it in Thailand. We as tourists no longer have to be afraid of corrupt or authoritarian government here, as Thai authorities are careful to maintain Thailand safe and pleasant for foreigners.
On our first night we strike lucky. Tired, hot and dirty we turn into a small road leading off the highway and towards the first karst mountains of Nam Nao national park. It is a small village, with a bare sugar cane field at the end of the road. The last house of the village is a traditional wooden house on pillars, with a neatly swept yard and some chickens. A man is fixing a wooden pen, and he directs us towards his wife who is cooking by an outside fire. We ask her in gestures and with the google translate app if it’s ok if we put up our tent in the field next to their house. She seems somewhat apprehensive so we leave her to it and take a stroll down the village road, waving and smiling at the other villagers. We settle in our little camping chairs with a beer and wait. Soon the villagers to come to us, and one boy can read our google translate message. Our neighbour is happy for us to spend the night here and the kids are positively ecstatic. As we are setting up the tent we see them from the corner of our eyes. They are sneaking peeks, daring each other to come closer to us and taking turns dashing around our tent, as if jumping over a fire. The older ones yell English greetings at us from a safe distance and giggle at our replies. They are super funny but quite shy.
Then a solitary monk shows up. He is wearing dark mustard and maroon robes, not the bright orange of boys and men who traditionally enter the sangha or buddhist community of a monastery. He is walking barefoot and only carrying his alms pot. As he walks into the sugar cane field he asks if we are staying the night. He smiles and tells us this is good, and if we need any help in talking to the villagers he can help us with translating. About 100m from our tent he sets up his place for the night, merely hanging one of his cloths around a small platform and sitting down in lotus position. We are somewhat embarrassed about all of our gear. How much do you really need to travel?
Later on the villagers come back, bringing water and candles to the monk. We receive the same generosity and care as the monk, and our neighbour keeps handing us water and food over the fence around her yard. Every now and again she comes to sit with us, quietly chattering in Thai. She brings mosquito repellent, sticky rice with bamboo shoots, a mat to sit on, a bucket of water to wash ourselves with. We are moved by the sweetness and hospitality.
The monk comes to visit us again, to give us the supplies he doesn’t need. He says the villagers, and especially the children, are happy that we are there. It gets dark and we are quietly sitting outside with only the light of a candle. When the monk is back at his spot we hear him reciting texts for a good long while, adding his voice to the peaceful atmosphere.
What a wonderfully welcoming first night of camping in Thailand. We leave early in the morning with many wais for our neighbour, grateful and humbled by these lovely people.
Beware of the elephants!
In the morning we continue on the same road as the day before but it changes as soon as we enter Nam Nao national park. It is now a quiet two lane road, we head into the jungle and we start climbing. Our first climb in Thailand and oh boy it’s hard. This road was not designed with cyclists in mind. Someone must have looked at the map and drawn a straight line between two cities, nevermind the steep hills inbetween. The road goes right up and down, never hairpinning, resulting in murderous inclines. I am still not feeling well so we do two short stretches of hitch-hiking but we cycle about half of the way through the park.
We see a lot of signs telling us to look out for elephants, tracks where they usually cross the road, a bunch of cheerful park rangers and one big pile of what can only be elephant poo. Sadly we spotted no actual elephant. Still, the ride through the park is beautiful. No villages ergo no scary dogs who want to take a bite out of our tasty calf muscles. Just green woods with bird sounds all around and little traffic.
It is decidedly weird to roll into the town where I used to live and to realize we cycled here from The Netherlands. The last stretch into town is lovely, rolling along a flat country road with little villages. The Nam Nao mountain range is on our left, the peaks of Khao Ko national park on our right.
We make it just before sunset but it is still light enough to recognize the school where I used to work and live, the market and of course Topland, the mall where I used to go during my breaks. We spend one day at the hospital where the super nice and funny staff help us out really well. A course of antibiotics for me, and a couple of days to rest up and get my strength back.
We explore Topland and the market and meet up with the family of my friend Koi. Koi was one of my English students 16 years ago. She is now a doctor in Bangkok. Her family helps us out enormously by being the delivery adress for several packages, and they take us out for a nice meal. Phetchabun is much the same, still un-touristy (although we spot some falangs), a laid back country town with lovely people.
I’m happy this was my Thailand home for a short while. After this little trip down Thai memory lane we set off again, heading North towards Chiang Mai.