169km Chok Choi to Praset
Dawn had already broken when we first cracked open our eyes, remembered our pledge to make an early start the evening before and then rolled back over for another hour of sleep. Getting a move on before the heat rises is easier said than done but it’s a habit we should probably work harder to form.
The cycling is pleasant before 8am in Thailand. Up until 10am it’s still reasonably comfortable but afterwards even the mildest exertion has us breaking out into a puddle of sweat. Our skin itches. Our shirts are soaked. Our faces are so wet they shine. To the Thais, who never seem to sweat, we must look a real mess when we get off our bikes for a bite to eat or to see a temple.
All we read about cycling in this part of the world before we arrived was universally positive: fantastic food, friendly people, a cheap cost of living. Those things are all true but for us the humidity and high temperatures are taking their toll. We still have to come up with a good strategy for offsetting the weather’s less appealing side effects.
Until then, we’re likely to arrive at most places like we did the historic temple of Phnom Rung this morning – perspiring all over. It’s built on top of an extinct volcano so there was a steep climb to the entrance from the rice paddies down on the plains. We quickly found the toilets and after a splash of water we felt refreshed enough to explore this amazing site. The temple itself isn’t so big but the detail is breathtaking. Every tiny square is covered in carvings, going up many levels into the sky.
We timed things just right and managed to be on our way out as a few tour buses pulled in. By the time the masses were crowded around the temple, we were already on the hunt for lunch. We found our midday meal at a humble canteen, wedged between the rice fields and the road. Our table was shared with two women who were taking a break from farming and judging from their weathered faces they’ve planted more than a few crops of rice over the years. We were welcomed first with surprise but then with plenty of smiles. We’ve never had a bad meal eating where the locals are and this was no exception. The Thai version of chicken noodle soup – the only thing on the menu – with rice noodles, beansprouts and fresh herbs was delicious and only cost about $0.60 a bowl.
Our stomachs satisfied, we carried on down the road, intending to stop long before we actually did pull over for the night. First we missed our initial turnoff but decided to carry on for a second one. Then we didn’t see anywhere to sleep for ages. We went through a small town but with the word ‘hotel’ rarely appearing on the signs it’s hard to figure out where we might get a room for the night. We asked around but the drunk policeman we stopped wasn’t much help and many Thais became quite shy when we tried our poor language skills out on them.
By now it was getting close to dusk and just as we were wondering what to do we spotted a temple. We have a little note in Thai that says ‘please can we put our tent here for a night’ so Andrew showed it to the monks who were only too happy to give us a huge room where we could lay out our sleeping mats.
For the rest of the evening we were surrounded by young monks in training, some of them from Laos and Cambodia, who took an immense amount of interest in their strange foreign visitors. All of what we’d been led to believe about Buddhism was turned on its head. The monks had no problem speaking to Friedel, for example, even though we’d been told they weren’t supposed to talk to women. On the contrary, many of them initiated conversations with her. Some had new music players and mobile phones, making us wonder about our impression that they were supposed to renounced worldly pleasures. And although we’d been told never to touch anyone on the head as it’s seen as the highest part of the body, spiritually and literally, we watched the teacher of these young monks-in-training give them playful taps on the head when they were cheeky or too boisterous. Proof that we shouldn’t take what’s in the guidebooks too literally?