Onward: Meandering through Malaysia

Sometimes it’s easy to forget tropics, but sometimes they just jump out and remind you. And by they, I of course mean a pack of cute little monkeys or a lizard or a big ass spider. Walking home from dinner in Hat Yai, an elephant loiters casually in front of 7/11- I’ll add that to the list of “Never in Edmonton.”

Stopped for a drink and shade, attempting to escape the omnipresent heat, men shake Hodei’s hand, or bless him at random. While sitting on the steps, men ask him “where is your wife from”or if they might have pictures with me. Though seated next to him, I am voiceless.

While repairing H’s spokes, the “I’m bike” shop examines my broken seat. They check my MacGyvered fix: a cut plastic bottle rammed and taped under the broken seat. One of the guys looks at me, then back at the bike and then waves me into the shop. He shows me two used seats, for you he says, anything free. I’m humbled. His man attaches my new seat and fits my bike with a shiny new bell, removing the broken one claimed by Cambodia. Again, I am positively delighted. These guys are just too nice.

Cycling south toward Malaysia on the east coast, we cross through a perfect patch of paradise: the highway 4157. It meanders quietly, away from the busy traffic and at one point drops off and into the sea entirely, bordered by beautiful lush fields. Smile the thousand watt smile: it’s like cycling through the set of Robison Crusoe.

Southbound, communities also begin to change shape. Wats go from lining the roads, to recessed, much further behind ornate gates. These same gates go from housing only monks, to entire communities. Mosques pop up more often.

Checkpoints back in Thailand began rather innocuously at first. A couple of sticks, red and white striped, faded by the afternoon sun, block traffic from free flowing. Really, they look more like horse jumping props than military traffic controls. Slowly though, the checkpoints become more erect, more formal, stronger colored, more serious. Barbed wire appears, this is then traded for razor wire. Further reinforcements are added, sandbag barricades house soldiers behind camouflage curtains. Guard towers crop up and, soldiers in full uniforms dot the roads near video monitored checkpoints, sporting full fatigues and automatic rifles.

Cacophonously, at least 5 mosques call us to pray. Each call is slightly out of sink with the others and all compete for ear-space with nearby chanting monks. Stopped in a pagoda, a solider about to start his shift explains, in not so many words, they’re out patrolling because of recent car bombings. He tells us there is a curfew after 6. We let him know, this isn’t a problem. Our lunch lady in Malaysia confirms. Buddhists and Muslims don’t seem to get along so well in south Thailand.

Ironically, even after the many soldiers and many checkpoints, it wasn’t until the last night I felt anything less than completely safe. Pulling into a wat, we survey, looking for a monk to ask if we might stay. From around a corner, a short squat man in a basketball jersey strolls toward us. I eye his hip. A gun sits there. Casually, subconsciously, his fingers reach up and touch it, toy with it lightly. Slung lower is an ammunition belt, containing many fat red slugs, like something Rambo might wear. A Thai cyclist who joined for the last few kilometers, explains what we want and explains to us this is the Wat’s guard. He protects the monks and the families on the property. Set up on a pavilion, I sleep uneasily.

Over oat flakes at breakfast, H tells me he is having an existential crisis. He can’t recall if Katniss marries Peeta or Gale. Life is tough.

Happily, we cross over into Malaysia on the ferry at the Tak Bai border, ruing only our missed opportunities for piracy in international waters during the ride. Alas, it lasted less than 10 minutes and we weren’t quick enough.

Immediately, Malaysia has it’s charms, somehow it feels like is like cycling into the 90s (with fancier phones and better connectivity). Signs for “snow shower” and “boring air” pop up. Housed in a little blue hut, a payphone rings quietly as we pass and are passed by a Proton.

Cycling next to H this morning, a man reaches out and grabs my breast, hard. I scream that familiar unfamiliar animal cry, full of spit and incomprehension. H apologizes to me as I crouch down by the side of the road. He wishes he could have protected me somehow. But I, more than anyone, wish I could have protected myself.

The Spoke(n) Saga continues
Broken spoke counter: 9;
Spokes currently broken: 0;
Days without spoke breakage: 3.25

Looking for the skipper!

Crossing into Malaysia.

On the road that fell into the sea…

Which wat: she sleeps with the monks

The last three nights have been spent in pagodas with monks and all have been very different.

A routine has been established: before stopping to sleep, a 7/11 pitstop for noodles. Save this time, we are joined by a convention of Ducati motor bikers. Suitably impressed, they immediately start snapping selfies with us.

Arriving at the wat around sunset, you can see nothing but footprints in the sand. We head to the back and offer our story to an monk. An orange clad gang scrutinize passports and proceed to roll out the red carpet. Out buildings are sized up. This one is no good, it has no light. We are whisked upstairs to the bungalow next door. They begin cleaning with a mission. Floors are swept and then swept again. After sweeping they mop. Helping is useless, they are a well oiled machine. Plastic mats are brought for us to sleep on. Water is boiled, tea, coffee and all the fruits you can dream of are offered. Their kindness is incredible. Sitting on the steps of the monks’ bountiful storehouse, munching noodles in the dark, the monk Preecha (1964) snaps pictures of us on his deluxe smartphone and shows us his pictures from vacation.

The next night is something else. The pagoda nearby seems to be hosting a festival night for Song Kran, Thai new year. H is weary, so many people, such loud music. The question wat or night club, is valid. Assurances are offered and we are both exhausted, this wat it is!

As we unpack our bikes, a slow trickle of people pass by, offering water, directions to the toilet or simply asking where we are from. Everyone wants to see the curious bicycling farang. While unpacking, the monks bring over a long umbrella shaped item. Curiously, we unwrap it. Their gift is a tiny wire frame tent that pops over the plastic mats to make a sleeping habitat. I am overjoyed. This thing is the best. Serious logistical discussions about carrying one of these are had. The crushing reality is that it is just not practical. Alas! Given it’s length, we would look more like 21st century jousters, real Don Quixotes. Overwhelmed and exhausted, sleep came fast, only disturbed once by someone shouting Gustav Lima in thai, into the microphone during karaoke o’clock. Chuckle.

This last night, our pagoda was by the ocean. The monks welcomed us with rice, grapes(!) and eggs. Dinner was had by the ocean, under the setting sun. This place, more than any before, is still, peaceful and calm. Night brings a crazy storm, pouring rain all over us.

Days have been similar. Mornings begin with H breaking a spoke and the rest of the day is spent trying to fix it or looking for a bike shop with better tools. 4 days, 5 broken spokes. Currently, he cycles minus one spoke. Serious thought is being given to asking a monk to bless his bike.

Today is Song Kran, and the roads are lined with tiny armies of children dancing, drenching passerbys with waterguns and buckets or covering them in face paint. There are also the roving armies, with kids spraying innocents from the beds of trucks. Parents look on from the shade, bemused. In addition to it being new year, it’s also the water festival! As we pass, the looks on their faces are similar, can we? should we? I wave them toward me, soak me please! It’s 39 degrees here, I’m sure I’ll dry somehow…

The first wat!

The habitat ❤

Songkran begins….

After hours alternating between being drenched and covered in paint.

Koh Tao: So long, and thanks for all the fish

Writing this post has been a challenge. We stopped in Thailand for Christmas and quite unintentionally spent a few months. So many once strangers have become dear friends. Together we’ve shared an amazing experience, making it terribly hard to leave you behind. But the time has come, and we are southbound. Though not alone. For this leg, Hodei and his bici will be joining us. My heart is full and singing. I’m excited.

To the friends(especially my fellow DMTs), that have warmed my heart in Koh Tao, know you will always have a home with me.

Now, bike bike has seen better days. A few too many weeks of heat and salt water have been rough on her constitution. Forks are rusted red. Cleaning the caked on oil blackens my nails. A smile spreads across my face. Who knew this would ever bring such pleasure?

Clad in flip flops we pedal to meet the morning. Day one begins eventfully. The first few minutes are spent wobbling, with a bunch of added weight from a tent and some extras, I feel like a child learning to ride again. Oh dear, what have I gotten myself into! But, to quote the immortal Mr. Mario, “here we gooooo”!

And go we did, for about 4 hours, until H breaks two spokes. 49k km and he breaks his first two spokes, on a flat quiet road, in Thailand. We pull across the road into a near by bike shop. The mechanic doesn’t have the tools, but the bike shop 5km back does. He is whisked away on a motorbike. And so, with H’s tools and mechanic’s spare spokes, bici is fixed.

As I sit writing this, we’ve just finished having lunch with a lovely English cyclotourist! A treat to be sure. He’s excited to meet some people after 8.5 days at a silent meditation retreat. 🙂

The Moons of Koh Tao

Look up at the crescent moon,
A silver sliver in the black lagoon,
Think of all the roads untraveled,
A binding thread, easily unraveled.

Look up at the waxing moon,
Pregnant, rounding slowly, a product of the universe’s womb,
Think of the faces familiar and wonder,
What of the brother, the mother, the friend, the lover?

Look up at the sweet round moon,
Full and singing, a tapestry gleaming as from heaven’s loom,
Softly it calls, beckoning you near,
what is it, what am I to hear?

Look up at the waning moon,
A soldier retreating slowly, impermanent, tracks on a sand dune,
Hair blowing free, stare back at familiar and weary eyes,
Uncertainty unmasked under the still dark skies.

Look up at the new moon,
With a sputter or roar, adventure begins long before noon,
Indignantly cry, impertinent we are not,
Though the lessons of yore seem oft forgot.

Look up at the moon.

The Dynamic Duo!