Day 29: Rainy road to City of Monkeys
The ancient ruins mixed with the modern city are reminiscent of Rome, though there are less monkeys in Italy. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
IT'S a bad sign when you bump into construction work you don't recognize in an attempt to flee Bangkok. The plan is to take the route past the floating market to ensure I made it across the Chao Phraya River. Then, I can start heading toward Lopburi.
The motorcycle feels a bit unbalanced as I wobble through traffic after having been out of the saddle for more than a week. It's most likely the fact that I put more air into the tires last night, bringing the front to 36PSI and the back to 42PSI, factory recommendations. Nonetheless, wobbly does very little to build my confidence as the journey begins anew.
If Laura was with me, she'd have made sure I took the left down into Silom across the river instead of blindly traveling straight on Rama IV Road. Through the construction, I make an attempt to eyeball navigate, heading northward.
Northward into a train station.
Awkwardly, I work my way out of the train station and continue to search for a road that might be willing to heed my escape. Below a BTS line under construction, I stick to my guns and eventually am greeted by a stunning view of Bangkok as the bridge I'm on sweeps across the river. At this distance, Bangkok is gorgeous. The towers glisten, providing texture and form to the landscape.
Across the river, I'm home free.
Well, if I'm, heading the right direction I'm home free. Two things would be particularly handy in this situation: 1) checking Google Maps, for which I've developed a love-hate relationship 2) Knowing some landmark destinations on the way to Lopburi.
The decision of where to go this morning was rushed and poorly planned. I delayed my early start, which continues to be more of a fantasy than a reality, to meet with an old work colleague, who has gone on to become an award-winning journalist for the Bangkok Post.
Nikki is late. When he messaged me and said he'd be running late, I breathed a sigh of relief – I was still in bed. However, I thought he meant he'd be ten minutes late. I was wrong.
Sitting at Cafe Tartine, a nice French-style place next to a Novotel, I practice some card manipulations while I wait for him. I can feel the staff wondering if I got stood up. I try not to be fussed about what they're thinking. Instead, I focus on my Hindu shuffle.
Nikki arrives about 30 minutes late, which given Bangkok traffic, isn't so bad. He's wearing square framed glasses over his extraordinarily squinty eyes, which make him look as if he's fighting to stay awake during a late night movie – and losing.
There is a little more weigh to his face then last time I saw him, but he's on a journalist's high – apparently the same one he's been on one since he started at the Post and got a feel for what a “real” story looks like. His in-depth look at the LGBT community in the conservative, Muslim dominated Deep South provinces of Thailand is page one of this issue of Spectrum, one of the Post's Sunday specials.
It's wonderful to catch up: looking back at the Gazette, talking about journalism, talking about life, talking about Dice Travels.
“So tell me about Dice Travels,” Nikki says. Though we spent no time out of the office together when we were both working at the Gazette nearly four years ago, Nikki has me at complete ease immediately.
I launch into it.
I've never pitched a story before (just never been on that side of the desk until now), but this doesn't feel like a pitch. This is just me telling a friend about the project: it's scope, it's origins and so on.
He already had an inkling that it could be a good fit for the Post, which would be extraordinary. He suggests that I put together a formal pitch with the possibility of getting four to six pages, maybe even the cover page of another one of the weekly products he's part of: Brunch Magazine.
They don't regularly run travel stories, but the issue out yesterday has a piece, Stepping into a Vision of Japan, written by Wendell Jamieson, which instantly takes the reader on “a pilgrimage 35 years in the making covering both deep forest and idyllic towns on the Kii Peninsula.”
“Read this to understand our style,” Nikki says.
I scan the writing. It's beautiful. It's intimidating.
“So I still don't know where I'm going today,” I explain. “I though you could help.”
I pull the four-sided die: 1) Destination 2) Cardinal Direction 3) Recommendation 4) Re-roll.
I'm pulling for three spots this time, as Nikki would probably launch me off in an interesting direction. However, my roll is a four.
I give the die to Nikki to see what he comes up with: four, four and finally a one.
My heart sinks a little. I'm tired of traveling by destination. There's so much pressure to make it to the location, as well as come up with options of where I might go. Most likely, the lack of enthusiasm comes from the fact that the die keeps rolling me forward destination by destination, which seems very un-die-like of it.
After I settle our bill, I owe Nikki for waking up so early – for him – to meet with me, my wallet bursts in flames. Nikki is more concerned with the smell of the lighter fluid than the flames as I explain how magic, especially the burning wallet trick, is a perfect way to slip through language barriers.
Headed the same way on the BTS, Nikki and I continue our conversation about journalism.
“I really could live in Bangkok, I think,” I tell him. Between the climbing, the culture, the FCCT, the swing community and journalist striving to dig up real stories, I could be very happy in the city I once shunned.
Now, however, it's time to move.
I give Nikki a quick hug and jump off at the Asoke stop. I've got about an hour to pack my bags and get on the road.
The choice are 1) Lopburi 2) Singburi 3) Phu Toei Forest and 4) Krasiao. You know just about as much as I do about them at this point.
The die chooses Lopburi.
The excitement from this morning has been long washed away as the beast and I continue to drive down a six-lane, split highway cluttered with billboards and unhappy cement structures.
I pull over to check a map. I'm not heading north; I'm heading west.
Not ideal, but not a total loss I tell myself.
I let Google Maps take over navigation for awhile, hoping it updates fast enough that I don't miss my turns.
I check my watch. Though I've been on the road for the better part of two hours, I'm still no closer to Lopburi.
This is not the kind of driving I signed up for.
A light drizzle starts, not enough to justify pulling over and putting on rain gear, but enough to wet the roads and make them dangerous. As I work my way through the heavy traffic, I imagine my front tire going and the bike slipping out from between my legs as it goes skidding along the road. I imagine the details of the bike, my Rocinante, slamming into the retaining wall or under a pickup truck in front of us.
It's tense driving. It's not fun.
A dehydration headache starts to set in, mildly at first; something I can ignore. I'm not sure what sort of stubbornness was severed with my croissant and latte this morning, but I am unyielding for no particular reason today.
I should have had lunch before hitting the road or at least pulled over when I got out of Bangkok. Now, however, pulling over feels unreasonable. I want to go. Go until I'm nearly out of gas.
The sharp pain from the headache is dialed up a notch, running from the left side of my head down into my left eye. It feels so good to close my eyes, but that's hardly a long-term solution.
I'll eat at the next place I spot, I tell myself.
Sliding over to the far left lane, I start looking for a restaurant. One is so poorly marked that I'm pass it before I recognize it as a place to eat.
The pain in my head is dialed up another notch. Elizabeth, the jasmine plant I'm taking to Chiang Mai for the Bangkok Swing Club, is pushing the backpack forward a little, making the bike a whole lot less comfortable than it was a couple weeks ago.
Up ahead , there is a McDonald's.
I'm in a land of extraordinary cuisine, where even some of the street food could be served in a high-end restaurant in the States, and I'm going to eat fucking McDondald's.
I pull into the BB Market Place, a sheet metal structure housing dozens of stalls and restaurants, though most are closed, following a loop to McDonald's. The pain in my head increases.
I'm in a gravel parking lot. The road doesn't loop around.
“Fucking, cunt, shit, bitch fucker,” I scream into my helmet. Unlike the justified fury born from the Bangkok bridge experience, this is an uncontrolled childish rage.
I turn around and attempt to park the bike near a little Thai food stalls that I spotted in an unappealing courtyard at the center of the BB Market Place. The bike nearly falls over. I struggle to get the bike sorted. My gloves are soaked through, my fingers white sponges. The rain picks up a little.
I cover my packs and drag myself to the restaurant for a helping of stewed pork, fried chicken and rice – as well as liter of water. Hydrated and with food in my stomach, the pain in my head disappears. I calmly take off my boots wiggle into my rain gear and get back on the bike.
It stops raining.
The first rice paddies that I've seen on the trip appear alongside the highway. The first one is a muddy mess, a thin layer of water covering it as a few tall storks and a number of snow-white egrets pick through the water for dinner. The next paddy is a lush, vibrant green – a color iconic of rice field landscapes. At a distance, the young paddy looks like a well-manicured golf course.
The sky starts to darken and a wind rips leaves from the trees dividing the highway. Green foliage flutters among the cars on the road.
A storm is unleashed.
The road rises up into the dark gray sky. The two are indistinguishably until someone peaks the hill and taps their brakes, red lights drawing a line between sky and earth.
The rain pummels the road as visibility drops from 300 meters to 100 meters, then to 30 meters.
I should get off the road. But why stop when I'm finally starting to have fun?
Jaw set, I keep pace with traffic. Water droplets bounce through the vents on my helmet, coolly splashing my chin.
This is better than a light rain, I think, giving wide berth to a semi-truck creating waves out of puddles in the left lane. Fully focused, I drink in the moment – no longer thinking about crashing, just thinking about driving.
I wise man would stop at the first hotel and book a room. A wise man bound to the will of the dice would pull over at the first cafe and enjoy the beauty of the storm from the safety of an armchair.
As quickly as it descended on us, the storm breaks. Up head, there are flashing lights from an emergency vehicle. A crash, no doubt.
Wrong. Several branches were ripped from the trees and are being removed from the highway. The storm must have hit harder ahead of me.
After missing my turn off, adding 20 more minutes to the trip, I'm finally on the last leg to Lopburi.
Tired and wet, I skip the dice decisions and pull into the heart of the town, which an awkward, ugly circular monument. It looks more like a couple segments of bamboo balanced on a small table – impressive only in size.
With already down, the ancient ruins appear in my headlights, woven into the fabric of the modern town, very similar to ancient columns litter the streets of Rome.
A monkey dangles from the power lines above me.
A young man at Nett Hotel waves me off as I pull up to the window in the car park.
“Careful, careful,” he says.
The tile floor is slick, it wouldn't take much to lay the bike down in the middle of the “lobby” area, he explains.
Nett Hotel is a big, old hotel recommended by TravelFish. I book a fan room for 250 baht and then head for the third floor.
The tile floors in the wide hallways, sparsely decorated with ancient plastic flowers that are poking out of the mouths of ceramic fish, first gives the impression of an old person home designed in the 1940s. It's not until I'm in the room, surrounded by the white cement block walls that it hits me: the place looks like a re-purposed psychiatric facility. It's the old, bulky light switches and poor attempt to create comforts in the cement cell that makes me think of the New York State Psychiatric Ward, though I've never been there.
Nonetheless, the room is clean.
A spotless white sheet is spread tightly over the hard bed. I know I should get out and look around a little, but I don't have it in me.
Hola delivers some porn right to my phone, shortly after I'm asleep. It's a deep sleep that I don't rouse from until about 7pm.
Most of the shop houses on the streets nearby are closed. I'm forced to walk a couple blocks to track down the nearest 7-Eleven in my hunt for dinner. Eventually, I stumble onto NooM's. Places such as this draw foreign travelers like lights do moths. The warm lights, American-Road-Show style decorations and posters for tours makes me feel right at home.
They rent climbing gear for those wanting to explore the crag just out of town.
I ask, but they don't know of anyone climbing tomorrow.
I'll just have to scout it out myself in the morning.