Friday May 13, 2011

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony Day

It was the night before, that I decided that I’d attempt the cycle to Lop Buri. Lop Buri was one of Thailand’s oldest cities and had been an important outpost during the Khmer Empire, in and around the 9th – 14th centuries.

Lop Buri, however, would only be a passing through stage. I’d no desire to become one of the many sightseers, especially on this round trip that no doubt would take me all day to cycle, a round trip in excess of 330km.

I set off with my rucksack lightly packed. I tanked myself up with over half a litre of water not to mention carrying a good reserve of the stuff.

At just after half past six, I left my apartment bound for the interchange at Bang Khae. The traffic was quiet even around the market areas. I didn’t want to pace myself, as I knew that fatigue would eventually set in. This cycle was going to be one hell of a challenge for me. It wasn’t just the distance that I’d have to tackle, but also the punishing heat of the day, which would climax to around 36 degrees centigrade; in not more.

To be honest, I didn’t know what the outcome this task was going to be. My first conclusion was that I must have been completely mad to attempt a cycle of such magnitude.

As I began cycling north on the ring road, the sun slowly started to show itself low in the eastern horizon, as it steadily began to burn off the early morning haze. It was not long before I passed the junction for highway 340, which was the road for Suphanburi. I’d already had my first service station stop and topped up with water, not to mention having a well-earned Snicker bar for energy and comfort.

These garages are spaced out along main roads, make refreshment stops easy

The road slowly veered off to the north-east as I cycled in what I considered to be relatively familiar territory. I wasn’t too sure, how far I’d ventured up this road before today, but I knew that I’d not been as far as Saraburi.

The ring-road heading north

Later, I cycled past the turnoff for Sena on highway 3111, my speed was averaging 33km/h. I considered that I was doing well, I started to calculate how long this cycle would actually take me to complete. I presumed, so long as I didn’t breakdown and that I completed it, then I should get back home for around half past eight in the evening. That was certainly a daunting prospect, especially to say that it was now only a quarter to nine.

An hour or so later, I was on my approach to Mahawachiralongkorn Ratchawitthayalai College, a Buddhist University, south-west of Ayutthaya. A fleet of at least ten coaches passed from the university in convoy. I was cycling on the service road that ran parallel next to the trunk road, but where the coaches were going, was anyone’s guess. Possibly heading out to a Buddhist convention somewhere.

Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University.
Known as one of the main Buddhist Universities in Thailand
Beautiful elaborate buildings

Eventually, I started to pass paddy fields the crop there looked healthy and had grown to about 30 cm above the water line, nearly ready for harvest, I thought.

I cycled past more paddy fields and woodland with the scenery repeating itself, time and time again, except in one area there was a string of pylons stretched across my vision if only to spoil my view.

Rice field growing (taken in December 2016)

At around ten o’clock, I crossed into the province known as Saraburi. ‘Welcome to Saraburi,’ a sign proclaimed before yet another sign stating the same thing only another 100 metres further up the road. I suppose if you didn’t see it the first one then you’d certainly see it the second time round.

Later on, in the distance, I could see hills. They looked blackened against the backdrop of the watery blue sky. I was beginning to climbing and I could feel it in my legs, but managed to maintain a relatively good speed. I’d not yet see a single cyclist. In fact, over the whole duration of this cycle, I didn’t come across one.

Soon, a number of large trucks pulling large trailers started to venture past me in ever increasing numbers, as I headed further north. Their fronts and sides were caked in dirt and dust as they thundered along relentlessly, leaving their residues of filth, which only helped to cloud my vision. They trundled along, one after another, in a sequence of convoys.

Dirty, dusty lorries on their way to the quarry areas

On my approach to the junction for highway 33, which was the turn off for Nakhon Nayok province, I noticed that some of the distant mountains looked slightly speckled. It was like looking at a mosaic from a distance. The mountainous landscape, nearby however looked to be carpeted in a thick blanket of verdant, virgin forest, looking like a scene from a Jurassic landscape, minus of course those pterodactyls.

As I approached Saraburi the speckled mountains range started to surrender their mysterious colourations to me. These huge lumps of rock that were sticking up out of the forest as if somebody had simply plonked them there before the forest had managed to colonise them. Obviously, the jungle law had not entirely been obeyed here.

After passing Saraburi the road started to climb gradually again. Nothing of any significance, but in the distance, I could see how the road was going to unfold and I knew that I would feel it in my legs more. Especially from the exertion, that I’d have to use to get me up and over those hills. Just looking at them was enough to make me feel tired.

The road started twisting gracefully north again and then to the north-west. The mountain range in front of me continued to look speckled, but now it was different. There was no greenery. The landscape was all white, brown and orange and from a distance, it all looked rather strange but incredibly colourful. That’s, of course, the part that I saw of them, as the monstrous lorries, continued surging past me, rumbling and roaring in their ferocity, in the hope that they’d get to their destination before the close of day.

Mountainous landscape neat Lop Buri

Then, to my left near the junction with the highway 3385, the penny finally dropped. I realised what these lorries were actually being used for. There must have been hundreds of them, on both sides of the carriageway. In the distance, they were quarrying the rock from beneath the forest floor. Talk about moving mountains! Mountains and forest were literally disappearing on an incredible scale.

Moving mountains
Mining on an industrial scale
Half a mountain disappears, or at least it looks that way.

The air was slowly filling up with fine dust particles too, as the quarry trucks raced up and down the road, as if in a quest to flatten the entire terrain. What had once probably been a beautiful and idyllic setting was now a colossal quarry site. In the distance, from behind the remaining untouched virgin peaks, you could see more quarry workings in progress, one after another. They stretched for literally miles, right onto the horizon and no doubt beyond that too.

It wasn’t as if anybody had even tried to conceal the fact for what was going on. It just looked so conspicuous. The mountains were literally being carved up. Hadn’t Thailand’s fragile ecology been damaged enough? No doubt once the mountains have all gone, then they’ll dig down into the depths of the earth in the hope that they’ll find gas or oil. Changing Lop Buri into the Dallas of the East! Maybe if they continue digging, they’ll eventually come out in Brazil or Ecuador. God only knows what they’ll do there?

I had now passed all the quarrying activity and ironically I encountered a beautiful exotic botanical garden that seemed somewhat incongruous after what I had passed earlier.

A beautiful idyllic looking Pukae Botanical Garden

After the gardens, the view opened up into that wonderful imposing mountainous wilderness again, that looked so majestically and magnificent as they invariably did. Well, that’s until the quarrying and mining companies decide to move in.

Welcome to Lopburi

After about 10 km, I reached a sign stating Lop Buri. The landscape flattened out somewhat, with dwellings lining the periphery of the road and fields running up to the horizon.

The mountains were now a distant thought, a passing memory and just about to drop off my register. In front of me, the road started to descend down towards Lop Buri, but now I couldn’t even find the energy to capitalise by a sprint down the hillside, something that I normally wouldn’t have thought twice about.

I was struggling now to maintain 28km/h and that was going downhill, which was dreadful for me and didn’t I just know it! What was I doing? How was I going to get back home feeling like this?  I’d only cycled 150km and was now about halfway around my planned route. What on earth had beheld me to endure such a cycle, was it for the pleasure or for the masochistic pain, or just the compulsion to say that I’ve done that?

Eventually, I hit Lop Buri at around half past one, after doing a lot of freewheeling into the town. I continued to cycle until I hit a round-a-bout that had a figure of a character from the Ramakien tales, wearing traditional Thai costume and Chada theatrical headdress. The round-a-bout looked like it was a garden within a garden, with walls separating one tier from the next, embellished by an array of flowering plants and shrubs.

The main round-a-bout in Lop Buri
Statue of King Narai the Great. The king of Ayutthaya from 1656 -1688

I was tired and maybe I was thinking about it too much, instilling enervation into myself. I just knew I was becoming languished and here I was seriously considering cycling back the way that I’d come. But I couldn’t bring myself around to cycling back up that wretched hillside, or having to encounter all those lorries again, plus that would be defeating the whole object of all this, which was supposed to be a round trip.

Prang Sam Yot, the khmer temple in Lop Buri
Feeding time at the monkey temple, even though the sign says, ‘please do not feed the monkeys.’
There are monkeys, monkeys everywhere.

The 311 road seemed to be a sequence of ornate roundabouts that were extremely well maintained just like the first one had been, but the signposting by British standards was incredibly poor. I took the risk and cycled straight across, as that seemed to be the most logical thing to do. I cycled and cycled, but there was no indication as to where I was going, or where I would eventually end up. My only aid for directions was my cycle compass, which was not the most accurate of devices. I knew I was travelling west, but that’s all I knew.

The road heading out towards Ang Thong

It was over half an hour before I realized that I was on the right road. That was after I’d reached the junction where I turned right for the 3196 road. This road seemed to follow a khlong for much of its duration. The road was quiet, without a whisper of a breeze as I began to pick up speed. I slogged on mile after mile, the time was somewhere around two in the afternoon. I was still slightly ahead of schedule, but I wasn’t too sure if my body would last out? I’d already used up my drink reserve and I was taking every opportunity at service areas to tank myself up thanks to this unforgiving heat.

An attractively looking model elephant 

The 3196 road, seemed a long one to cycle along in the heat of the day. However, this was more comfortable than some of my previous long cycles that I’d encountered.out an hour and a half, I hit the junction for Ang Thong. On examining my map, I decided that the gains of heading south, wouldn’t be as beneficial as travelling west. More so, I’d even pick up highway 32 quicker that way, which was the road that I needed. So cycling towards Ang Thong I went, which was about 10 km away. That was roughly a 20 minutes cycle along the 3267 road.

Soon, I picked up the slip road that would lead me onto the 32 road. It was well shaded by trees on both sides and had a graveled causeway to it.

As I cycled along, something menacing caught my attention on the ground. Yes, something sinister, slithering along and heading straight towards the open road. I stopped immediately after I’d passed it. I placed my bike down and quickly went for my camera. I then hurried back to investigate, hoping that the motorists wouldn’t have run over it. I grabbed two pieces of wood that just happened to be there and then made my return to investigate this creature.

Being very careful, I took a series of photographs of it. The snake was about 14 inches long, probably venomous? Not that I was going to be foolish enough to mess around with it. The markings were similar to the snake that I’d seen being killed at the side of the road down Thoet Thai Road a number of months ago. The man then swore blind that it was a cobra, but was it?

A juvenile cobra. Yes, I did get close up to it.
One of the deadliest snakes in Asia.

With a piece of wood, I rolled the snake over. The snake’s mouth opened, probably playing possum. There were definitely two distinct fangs in there. This juvenile snake was certainly going to be saved from being squashed by the traffic, but I wasn’t going to give it the benefit of biting me.

A poisonous snake of this age would probably have enough venom to kill me – nothing like playing with death! I picked up the snake using the two pieces of wood and carried it off to safety, to where the long grass was at the side of the road, with its head constantly facing in the direction that I was walking in, not allowing it to make eye contact with me. Then I placed it down on the grass verge, where the snake earnestly slithered away into pastures green.

I returned to my bike and continued to cycle on towards the 32 road. I had only cycled about twenty metres if that when I came across another one. This looked identical to the previous one and again it was heading towards the slip road. Didn’t adult snakes teach their neonates how to cross the roads here before they flee the nest? Maybe this one had heard that the roads here snaked their way through the countryside. I considered that they might have been related – brother and sister. Possibly one wanted to be the other one’s flatmate.

Again I stopped. This time I placed my front wheel in front of it. It sensed my presence with its black forked tongue and so probably considered me as a potential threat. I didn’t intend to hurt this creature, regardless of its potential neurotoxic venom. The snake did a U-turn and quickly slithered back towards the grass verge. I‘d saved two wonderful snakes, without being bitten – mission accomplished.

I received a confirmation on May 19, that the snakes that I’d saved were either Monocled cobra (Naja kaouthia) or Spitting cobra (Naja siamensis), both deadly poisonous.

Highway 32 was going to be a long cycle and the time was now already approaching four o’clock. I began my long cycle south, struggling to keep a good pace going, knowing that time would eventually catch up with me, sooner or later.

The last thing I needed now was a puncture, which would really set me back and leave me feeling somewhat despondent. My stops were becoming more frequent and longer as I wrestled with my fatigue and tiredness.

The challenge of cycling here in Thailand was about getting from one place to another under one’s own steam and achieving that goal safely. The adventure of what you came across was just an added bonus, but one had to take the rough with the smooth and then being able to look back on it later and say – ‘I cycled that.’

After a number of hours of cycling in the dark with lights on I saw the road that I next wanted. It was getting late and I was fighting my concentration, as the traffic was becoming more challenging.

For the last hour or so, I’d been looking eagerly for an empty taxicab to shuttle me on towards Bangkok and possibly nearer to Bang Wa, but none had stopped for me. The feeling of being enervated returned again. I cycled steadily with four busy lanes of traffic coming up from behind me and many more miles still left to go. I had at least another two hours of cycling left of this crazy crusade.

The road signs seemed to be incoherent, not making any sense at all and I was under the delusion that I should have been on the ring road by now. I was convinced that I was still cycling down highway 32 and that I had just carried on cycling through the interchange, rather than turning right for the ring road. Coaches with spectators watched me from the comfort of their opulence seats as they travelled in style.

Later I got confused, as I was near on the verge of dropping. I’d now cycled the best part of 290km since this morning. I had got past the point of wanting to consult with my map, plus it was now too dark to do so.

Exhausted, as my senses were beginning to play tricks with my mind, which suggested that probably this was really time for me to find an alternative way to get home. I pulled over, a young taxi driver agreed to drive me across town to Bang Wa.

I dismantled the wheels of my bicycle and put everything in the back seat of the taxi. Then I sat in the front passenger seat ensuring that I had not forgotten anything, especially my head; knowing how forgetful I could be at times like this.

The taxi driver conversed with me, but at first, he seemed a little hesitant with his directions. I didn’t really care which way he took me, so long as he got me back safely. He could have gone via Timbuktu for all I cared.

I soon realised that Don Mueang Airport was nearby. This airport was north of Bangkok and at the side of the 31 road.

The road eventually took me down on to Sathon Road. I’d no idea how we got there and nor did I really care considering my physically wrecked state.

I eventually requested the taxi driver to drop me off at the most convenient spot, as I was not prepared to pay for a taxi that was just going to sit around in slow-moving traffic all the way up Sathon Road. At this rate, it would have been early morning before I got back.

I caught the BTS train from Wongwian Yai. I certainly got some strange looks, but I was too far gone to be concerned. All I wanted to do now was to have something to eat, get a shower and then get some sleep, preferably for a year, longer if possible.

From Wongwian Yai I cycled back home, heading directly to my usual eating place where I ordered a fish dish. I carried my bike over to my table and rested it against the perimeter wall of the adjacent building. I was not bothered if the accumulative sweat was now giving off a strong pungent smell. I was certain that it would only neutralise the usual prevalent smells that usually circulated around in this part of the neighbourhood.

My meal was delicious, along with a well-deserved bottle of Leo beer, although I would have much preferred a Heineken or Carlsberg, but they didn’t sell it here, which was a shame.

I sat there watching the bubbles in my drink as they raced to the top. The ice on the frosted glass slowly began to thaw in the balmy tropical evening heat. The thawed dribbles ran down the side of the glass making all sorts of strange looking patterns as they went, only to pool around the bottom of the glass as if it had run out of momentum. It was like the scene at the end of that classic film ‘Ice Cold in Alex.’

I was starting to come around a bit, waking up from my cycle trance you could say. I sat there eating and wondering what the consequences would have been if I’d have continued cycling? Wondering at what time if I would have got back in one piece? Overall, I’d cycled 317km and that’s all that mattered, I had surpassed my previous best distance of 306km. Maybe one day I’ll even accomplish 400km in one day, but only time will tell.