Monday morning we cab to the offices of our bike tour. The heat is enough to make your eyeballs sweat and I wonder how we can possibly bike through this thick weather. Andre, our guide is from Holland, his wife and assistant, Thai. Both are welcoming and reassuring, this will be fun. The bikes are familiar mountain style and we are joined by 6 others, all from Holland, parents, their two daughters and their husbands and we are off, single file down an alley, around a corner and into a world separate from the elegance of our hotel. Amazingly, as soon as we start rolling, the heat seems to disappear in a breeze. Throughout the day, the heat only becomes oppressive when we stop. Andre stops us occasionally to explain what we are about to encounter.
One of the first stops he explains we are entering a slum. The quarters are very close, in some cases our concrete or wood path will take us through people’s homes. While this may make us uncomfortable, we are to be assured it does not bother the people living there (how can this be?), there is a different standard of communal living in Thailand. Back on the bikes and we ride out of the blazing sun into the hushed, shaded dank. Almost immediately children and adults come out of no where, “hello, hello,” they smile and wave, the children reaching out to touch our hands. No one asks a thing from us, they just reach out to be hospitable, to touch a foreigner. Around and through we travel. There are no windows on the homes, often no doors. Occasionally we hear a television on in the background or a radio, but a gentle quiet is the norm. Mostly women and children, often older women watching children a couple generations removed. I have one strong image of a woman, thin, hobbled with age, gently pushing a hammock and baby no more than 5 feet from our path, inside her home made of wood and roofed by tarps. Nothing goes wasted in this neighborhood, what to us might look like trash, a discarded piece of tin, a old plastic poster, are recycled as walls and roofing. Riding down tight paths where we can easily reach out our arms out and touch houses on both sides, I am overwhelmed by the humble homes, people sleeping on straw mats or on bare wooden floors, one man, fresh from a bath comes to the open doorway wrapped in a towel to say “hello.” Occasionally we encounter a motorcycle going the other direction and dismount to pass by, smiling, making adjustments, passing without any animosity. Definitely, we are not in Kansas, or any other place in the US. Often there are women preparing food for sale, small cafes and what might be called a Thai convenient shop with cold drinks and snacks. Every hour we stop for bottled water. The entire neighborhood hovers above water, built on stilts, precarious and permanent at the same time. Lunch is noodles and broth at an open café. Twice we load the bikes into boats to traverse open areas. At one point we are riding on sidewalks suspended about a foot above a swamp, weaving in and around and I brake too quickly, don’t make a turn and fall off the walk way into the water. Drenched, but unhurt, I’m pulled from the slim and hosed off by Andre and some cheery builders working on a new single dwelling. Wherever we see workers, whether building houses or high rises, they seem to be bare for or wearing flip flops – and as ever, the now familiar, peaceful Thai smile. The end of our trip, 5 hours later, comes so quickly we can’t believe we have been biking that long, say goodbye to our host, his wife and our traveling companions with unforgettable images flashing through our minds. Cost for the day? $25US per person.