Military roadblocks were a regular occurrence during the course of today’s journey. Of course for the silly foreigner with his odd hair, funny coloured eyes, long nose, and big bicycle this was no problem, just a wave and a hello and through I went. But the frequency and density of military presence brought home the fact that there was for sure some bother afoot. And then I turned left.
I had turned left many times already of course, but this left turn was noteworthy because it appeared nice kilometres sooner than I had expected, and for a big dual carriageway it was astonishingly empty. There was not a sole in sight, barely a living creature. “This”, I thought, “is odd”.
“Don’t go on that road, they shoot everyone” the words from the government lady last night came back to me. Maybe this is the road that she was talking off. But then again, if all who travelled along here got shot, then surely the road would be closed. It’s a little odd to leave a road open to folk if it is a sure-fire certainty that all who travel along it will be shot, isn’t it? But what if each time a soldier goes to put up the Road Closed sign he gets shot. But then again if that were the case there would be a big pile of dead soldiers and Road Closed signs at the beginning of the road. Just as I was working my self into a bit of a fluster over this a motorbike and sidecar rumbled by, “see”, I said to myself, “all is fine and dandy”. But still, if I were to be honest, I would have to say that it was quite some road to cater for the odd passing foreign cyclist and local sidecar combinations.
I took to bothering myself a bit more before coming to the conclusion that if I were to be shot then not to worry, I will for sure die some time, and if it was now it would save me the bother of finishing this journey and looking for whatever it may be that I am looking for, which could be a blessing as whatever it is either doesn’t exist, or I have passed it by which makes me a total ass. But, there you go, no sooner had I accepted my fate than I came to a junction and the traffic grew in density.
All parked scooters had to have their seat open at all times, evidently to allow the army to check for bombs
It was now, as I approached Sai Buri that the troops intensified in number significantly. It appeared there were several guards on each bridge, and in the tropics, there is much call for bridges, what with all those tropical downpours and the resultant streams. Then there were the periodic roadblocks with many troops and armed police at each, and then there was the general scattering of soldiers for good luck. All in all, lots of soldiers.
They were a friendly bunch. Friendly and young. They would generally great me with a big smile and a ‘hello’. They were, I realised, boys. Maybe I am getting old, but the fact remains that these soldiers were young lads happy to see what appeared to them an exotic adventurer. So there I was, having been told of all the dangers of this route and how I should avoid it, and here they were, young lads who stood there all day every day like sitting (standing) ducks. Should the insurgents wish to take a pot shot, these were the likely targets, not me.
It was around about five thirty when I rolled into town. Not a bad time. The sun was low in the sky by now so I stopped to remove my shades. Ahead was the part that I have done so many times before and still I am not as relaxed with as I should be. Riding into a big town and finding a place to lay my head for the night. I should be more relaxed, I have never failed to find a place, and so far as I can recall I have never stayed at a really bad place. “In a room sitting on the bed with a beer by six and all will be well,” I told myself.
As I rounded one corner cursing the lack of hotels I came across a boy, or perhaps a young man, wandering down the street. I mention this as he was not a typical Thai lad of his age, no scooter, no cool clothes, no beautiful girl on his arm. No, he didn’t even have shoes, and his arse was, quite literally, hanging out of is britches. His hair was tangled and he carried from his shoulder an old rice bag. He was, in short, a raggedy-man. But highlighted by the blackness of his filthy face was the whiteness of his teeth and the white of his eyes that shone. I smiled and nodded, and within a moment I was past him, and I cursed myself for not greeting him verbally. I was just another who passed him and his plight by. As for his story, I shall never know.
I cruised around the town a little more bemoaning the lack of hotels, when, as the memory of the raggedy-man already began to fade, a cobbled together motor scooter and sidecar drew alongside me. The rider (driver? I am never sure about this) was a middle-aged man with a moustache and a big grin. His sidecar was of the I-have-a-welder-and-can-soon-whip-one-of-them-up-from-some-old-pipe-and-a-wheelbarrow-wheel sort, and in it where two plump middle-aged Muslim ladies wearing headscarves and grins from ear to ear.
“Sewadee kha” they all greeted me in the vernacular. I returned their greeting, and by way of polite conversation, I mentioned that I sought an inn for the night. This was done as much through universal sign language as through the spoken word, well more so actually, but they got the gist. Follow me gestured the pilot, and to the sound of the laughter of his lady companions, we were off - off like the clappers I have to say. We did a U-turn, took a left, hung a right, and blasted off into the thick of the traffic. He accelerated (as best he could, given two overweight ladies and sidecar to hold back his 125cc scooter) and soon we were in the thick of it. A crossroads with traffic lights just changing to red, he revved his machine up and, drawing enough extra breath to curse, so did I. It was a tight manoeuvre on a laden touring machine but I feel I pulled it off with aplomb. Soon we were passing the solo machines, weaving in and out, and the astonishing thing about it was that although all around me looked like mild madness, my guide rode as though it was the most casual ride of his life. I was impressed, he never cut anyone up, or got in there way, or acted erratically.
So here I was, after riding 160kms blasting flat out weaving through a mass of motor scooters following a homemade motorcycle and sidecar with two plump Muslim ladies, head scarves waving majestically in the wind as they waved and grinned and shouted encouragement to me, and every now and again a little of the scrap metal he seemed to have gathered in the sidecar would fall out and bounce in my path to give me something extra to think about.
And then a swift left into a quiet side street and there it was the Palace Hotel. My friends pointed to it, spun their machine around, waved and acknowledged my thanks, and were gone. I just had to sit for a moment and laugh out loud. What great folk.