When we used to roll around playing in the mud as kids, the day would inevitably conclude with a soak in the bath that, when drained, would deposit a tell-tale scum line of a day’s high adventure in the neighbourhood. Maybe as a result of our newly acquired high standards of hygiene or due to diminishing playtime over the years (surely not!), it had been a long time indeed since we had observed the two-tone world of an emptied tub. Yet this is what we found as our final pedal strokes carried us into the northern suburbs of Bangkok, where the cycling part of this Odycycle would come to rest.
News of the epic flooding in Thailand in October may have only briefly registered with many of you. Yet another natural disaster far from the mostly meteorologically benign parts of the world we inhabit. For us, however, we had skidded onto the set of what seemed to be a post-apocalyptic landscape. Once a gentle middle-class neighbourhood; now a zone of decaying furniture, rotting toys, shrivelled photo albums, swamped immobilised vehicles, and a mosquito-infested stench weighted in the air.
Where was the bunting? The ticker-tape parade? Our irrepressibly kind and hospitable warmshowers hosts, Nawin and Anan, had accepted our request for a bed and a place to store bikes long before the biblical rains came, the day the levees overflowed, and the night Anan’s own waters broke too. She gave birth to Punpun the night that crocodile-infested, disease-ridden, murky waters rose to almost 190cm throughout their district and, depressingly, inside their living room.
In the weeks prior to our mid-December arrival, we were repeatedly updated on the level of floodwater in the house. “It’s almost down to 1m!” chirped yet another absurdly optimistic email. When the floods did eventually depart from the front room, some 9 weeks after they arrived, our hosts toiled endlessly to get their home back into shape to welcome us. They simply wouldn’t entertain the idea of turning us away. We tell the story of Nawin and Anan for a simple reason. For us, they embodied the kind, gentle spirit that we encountered throughout our days in Thailand. Warm smiles at every turn, and incessantly going out of their way to shepherd us along.
Unsurprisingly, Thailand is a tourist’s paradise: wonderful food on every street-corner, stunning scenery (not even counting the picture post-card beaches), charming and friendly people, and it’s cheap. Such a cocktail inevitably leads to coach-loads turning up on a truly vast scale, and yet this country (and its character) appear so remarkably unscathed. True, we avoided the mega-tour traps that abound on some parts of the coast but life in Bangkok on our three sojourns, and on the arrow-straight highway that shuttled us into the capital from Cambodia in the final four days of our cycling, presented glorious trawling through giggling night-markets and deliciously contented post-noodle highs at every pit-stop.
Being the aberrant bicycle parents that we are, our bikes rested up in the floodlands of Bangkok while we went off to explore an Australian Christmas. Our return to the periphery of the big smoke was, however, startling. The desolation that stained such a large swath of the city had received, in our month away, a life-giving dose of the magic wand. Roads had been swept clear, rotting waste banished, and abandoned streets were filled once more with the high-pitched chatter of nutty kids careering around on improvised go-karts. All that remained of those dark autumn days was the scum-line running chest-height throughout the neighbourhood.
Notwithstanding the tireless clearing, cleaning and cleansing that the positive Thai folk of Bangkok have undertaken, a steely pragmatism stalks their thoughts. Each year this area of Thailand is flooded. Usually, a handful of inches come and go quickly without drama. The scum-line that runs throughout the area, however, is not the only scar that remains. In the absence of concerted government action to ensure flood-waters are properly dissipated through a series of (probably very costly) improvements to the storm levees, the people are waiting. To see what this year brings, before deciding whether to invest once more in their lives here. As with so many of the places we have passed through on our Odycycle, we will follow events in Bangkok closely in the coming year.
Tock. Tick. Tock. That clock that had begun to sound just a few weeks ago has come full into view now and 7 measly days remain to draw breath (we have really been doing that all year) before we are catapulted home through airport lounges, along runway strips and across immigration checks, with our trusty bikes hopefully in tow.
And draw breath we did, in joyful circumstances. With our good, old friends: The best people from Portugal, ever, Rafael and Tanya. After cycling so many kilometres with them through Central Asia our paths had split in western China and while we scurried north of the Himalayas, they ducked underneath and through India. We shrewdly conspired, however, to meet on a little slice of heaven, a small island off the Andaman coast. So in our final days we reminisced, we jumped, and we swam. Incessant bicycle chat, yet not a bicycle in sight.
344 days after we set out from Sam’s sister’s front door, we are now wrapping up our lovely bikes in cotton wool and hurtling towards the BKK airport. We think that one blog remains and then this Odycycle too can be laid to rest.