101km Praset to Sangkha
We woke up with a little less spiritual tranquility than we might have hoped for after a night in a monastery. Novice monks were running in and out of the large hall we were given as a sleeping space until late in the evening, giggling at us and every so often attempting a few questions in broken English. As they came and went, a few mosquitos moved in and with we went to bed tucked well into our cotton sleep sacks despite the heat, trying to hide from the malaria virus.
We decided long before we arrived in southeast Asia that we wouldn’t take any preventative malaria medication. Too many side effects, too many regions where the virus has already become resistant to many of the drugs and anyway, our motto on this trip has always been do as the locals do and they certainly don’t pop pills year round, nor do many of the foreign NGO workers living here long-term. Avoiding bites has been our tactic but that’s a little difficult when someone has let the mosquitos into your room for you. Thankfully the risk in Thailand is very low so we didn’t lose too much sleep over it.
We did spend a bit of time though thinking about the local couple who showed up and started setting up their home for the night near the picnic tables just outside the hall where we were sleeping. We watched this obviously reasonably impoverished man and woman spread out their meager belongings and contemplated how lucky we were to be spending a night in a monastery by our own choice and because we were on a marvellous world tour while some people come to the monastery because they really have no other option.
When we finally got to bed, it was a few short hours before dawn arrived to the tune of a metal grate being rolled up and pots banging around in the adjacent kitchen, where local women were cooking breakfast for the monks. We packed up quickly and then searched for a place to make a donation to the monastery. We didn’t see any donation boxes so we asked in the kitchen by waving our money around. “Tamboon, tamboon,” the women said, looking pleased and rushing off to get one of the young monks-in-training from the night before. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old and was very shy as he sat down, legs tucked behind him, and placed his large silver offering bowl in front of his lap. We dropped in a few bills, attempted a clumsy ‘thank you’ in Thai and ran off to the local market for an iced coffee. By this time it still wasn’t even 6am but there were plenty of people in the market, who all had a good laugh at the crazy foreigners trying to wheel their bicycles between fried rice sellers and people lugging tons of pineapples on little carts.
After a quick shot of caffeine and loaded up on sugary donuts we set out for Surin, amazingly managing to find the back roads instead of the busy main thoroughfare and even more amazingly managing to find toilets at all the right moments. Friedel’s guts were doing topsy turvey things for the first time in ages (we have been very lucky where tummy troubles are concerned) and let’s just say that’s not much fun on a bicycle! Once in Surin, we called up Sarmun, a local man who we met on the Couchsurfing site and who had a ‘treehouse resort’ he’d invited us to stay in.
Soon we were settled into Sarmun’s home in the sky – quite an impressive collection of buildings and rooms built several meters up around a forest. And then Sarmun did something no one has ever done before and welcomed us to his city by taking us to a political demonstration. Now, being sensible travellers we always read the British government’s advice for every country we go to and on the FCO website it clearly points out that there is a risk of a military coup in Thailand at the moment and there are a lot of protesters because they believe the government is corrupt and this little primer ends with the words: “You should exercise caution and avoid any demonstrations.”
Well, yes, that would make sense but good reason got ripped to shreds by that Canadian desire to be polite and not cause any trouble for our host so we didn’t protest when Sarmun said he just had a little party for us to attend and that it would only be a couple hours. He mentioned something about it being political but we thought it was a private event of some sort and then we got there and discovered it was actually a march around the town. The next thing we knew, someone was tying bandanas around our heads with slogans printed on them that we couldn’t even read and another person was handing us two flags saying ‘just hold these’ and before we knew it we were being told to ‘stand here’ and ‘isn’t it great you’ve come’ and then the crowd was moving and then it was really too late to do anything about it.
“Don’t worry. My husband’s a lawyer,” one woman said reassuringly as we set off, although we weren’t really reassured by the fact she felt obliged to tell us that and we wondered if we should just step off to the side then and there but someone else saw our nervous looks and laughed and tried to tell us it was really very safe. Safe or not, we did learn some very helpful Thai words like ‘nay’ and ‘kop’ which, when you put them together, apparently mean ‘to jail’ and if you add the name of the former prime minister in there, well, you get the idea… This language lesson took our minds off the rain, which was pouring down in fine monsoon style and had us all soaked to the bone just five minutes after the hour-long march began.
We thought that was the end of it but Sarmun had another rally to go to again that evening and before we knew it we were once again at the scene, although this time it was more of a relaxed affair with people serving food and speeches and concerts but we understood little and with a line of police in riot gear separating us from some opposing protesters we decided to make an early exit. Unlike the afternoon, this time we had our bikes with us so off we pedalled back to the treehouse in the darkness, happy to have survived our baptism into Thai politics unscathed.
After a day of relaxation, we set off from Surin quite early but we didn’t get too far before we came across a string of box stores and ran in to stock up on things before we go to Cambodia. We piled the panniers full of Snickers bars and other snacks in anticipation of a potentially difficult journey to Siem Reap. Midday was already approaching by the time we cleared the city limits and we soon took shelter in a bus stop for the shade. They are everywhere here, always clean and big enough that we can roll our bikes in, lay down on the benches and still have plenty of room left over for actual passengers but there are so many bus stops we rarely have to share.
The rest of the afternoon was spent rolling over flat roads with rice fields on all sides. Finally we arrived in a bustling little town and we set about asking if there was a hotel nearby. “Just 500 meters down that road,” said one man with quite good English. We think he meant 5km and it took us ages to find because no one could give us good directions but eventually we arrived in our $10 U.S. a night suite complete with a huge double bed, a large fridge and a shower big enough for six people, not that we tried it. When we remember what we endured in France for five times the price it’s hard to believe such good accomodation can be so cheap.