Alarm clock rings at 6 a.m. Relax, it’s mine. Every morning Erykah Badu’s voice wakes me up gently as I insist on crossing Thailand only by bicycle. Contrary to what it might seem on the map, the country is quite big. I care so much because the world seen from the bike saddle is so wonderfully different than the one from a travel agent’s brochure. So I begin to explore the mornings.
It’s still dark outside. I pack my tent in a school ground or a restaurant garden. When I start breakfast, it dawns. Sometimes morning mist sweeps around. The early hours are usually hazy, it only becomes really sunny at around 10 o’clock.
I cycle through hills, through forests, through rubber or palm tree plantations. I cycle through flat rice paddies, fields of sugar cane or vast salt pans. Sometimes I cycle by the seaside. The road is rather empty. Homeless dogs still sleep on warm asphalt. Every now and then there’s a dead snake. From time to time a moped passes me by. At this time it’s only about twenty degrees Celsius which is like wintertime for Thais. A person on the moped wears a jacket or at least a warm jumper. Sometimes they have a woolen winter hat on.
Every so often there’s a village. People already bustle around their bungalows or wooden stilt houses. Maybe they uncover wicker bird cages hanging outside their doors. Or they buy breakfast at the door-to-door vendor of rice and soy milk. When I pass them, they always greet me with a smile. A barefoot monk in saffron robes walks through the village. He stops by each house and blesses the people who make an offering of food. In the schoolyards there are morning assemblies. Pupils in uniform resembling scouts’ stand in rows. In front of each household there’s a little spirit house which looks like a miniature monastery. Maybe someone puts some food for the ghosts or lights an incense.
Wherever I go, there’s always some water around: a river, a pond, a canal, anything. It stinks. Water there is often like a sewage. Infallibly someone fishes there. Often women.
Occasionaly there’s a roadside temple. It’s always richly decorated with animal figures. Something like our garden dwarfs. So maybe there are hundreds of big and small zebras around. Surreal.
Somebody takes a herd of hump-backed cows outside of a village. Roosters walk free after the night spent in a hand-made cages. In one of the roadside stalls there’s a monkey on a rope. Her owner sets her refreshments trolley. Aromatic smoke begins to soar where people make charcoal.
Or maybe I meet a Thai superstar. Who would have ever predicted that? Cycling into one of the villages I see lots of locals by the road, clearly waiting for something. The owner of a roadside restaurant, who like everybody else doesn’t speak English, says only one word to me: ‘superstar’. Indeed, after a while the road becomes super busy. First, police cars, ambulances, staff jeeps pass. Then, superstar appears – he’s a popular Thai singer who runs for charity from the south to the north of the country. There’s a group of other runners with him. And after them a traffic jam of local fans or regular people trying to pass through the blocked road.
It starts to be hot now. Maybe in the next village people will be already lying in hammocks in the shade of the trees. It’s time for a break so I stop by a little shop. You need to take off your shoes as you go in. I buy iced coffee and sit by a table watching this different world around me.