Friday, January 28, 2011

Three Days On A Bike

Three Days on a Bike

The baby is almost due. The College For Which I Work And Shall Remain Nameless is closed for two weeks. I managed to carve three days out of those very busy weeks to get on my bike.

My route was totally classic. I did not “go where no man had gone before”, to quote Captain Kirk in those pre-politically correct days. I very simply went up Route 10 until I hit Taalat and then over to Route 13, down to Ban 52 (see separate entry: Ban Fifty-Two Revisited) and then I threw the Specialized on a pickup truck down to the capital. Filthy and tired, I made it just in time to enjoy the Guinguette at the French Language Centre.

So, some words about the trip. One of the things you notice on a bike is that the country is filthy, absolutely filthy. It reminds me of the way France was 25 years ago, before the government invested massively in environmental education. So there is hope. As a matter of fact, a group of us farang get together every weekend to clean up the play areas by the Mekong and the Lao are most appreciative. It is only a question of time, but in the mean time, the country is sinking under the weight of plastic bags, garbage thrown from cars and the stink of burning garbage.

I made it as far as I could make it the first day before my knees, untrained for the trip, begged for rest. The guesthouse was a simple affair: dirty airless rooms for rent by the hour and nicer rooms at the back. The beer garden area was animated by three bored ladies of passion who stared at the television and asked me, without much hope: Passey? Lady?

But I had a great time with the locals at a nearby BBQ place where you buy roast pork skewers by the handful and can wash them down with BeerLao, the veritable local religion.

Lots of fun, glasses raised.

The next day I made it to Taalat. Many thanks go to the incomparable Reb Dovid who knows every nook and cranny of this country. Because my map ended before Taalat he was of great help telling me how to get there and where the 14th Century fort wall was hidden away along the way and where the ancient Khmer statues of Buddha were. Reb Dovid scours through old French documents and then goes off on his old bike to see if things are really where the French said they were. I do appreciate an original thinker.

I loved crossing the river by boat. I loved stopping in Temples to catch my breath and talk with the monks. I loved my lunch time pho.

On the way south on Route 13, at kilometer 62 there is a fish farm where you can go in and sit in a sala overlooking a lake and enjoy a really excellent roasted fish. The place is calm and beautiful and, like the rest of this blessed land, totally filthy. The grounds are overrun by plastic bags and a huge pile of waste waiting to be burned stands between two very pretty artificial lakes.

Three Days On A Bike - Ban Fifty-Two Revisited

Ban Fifty-Two Revisited

This was my second visit to Ban 52. It is always miraculous to imagine so much rural beauty and architectural purity so close to the capital.

You may wonder why there are no photos of people. The answer is that I didn’t like what I saw. Sure, in the occasional courtyard you can see a family working on some stitching and I am sure they would be happy enough to pose.

But a lot of what is going on in Ban 52 I just didn’t like and I think that that is what is really going on in Ban 52. I saw macho teenagers going fast on motor-scooters and screaming at each other. I saw young girls with painted faces waiting for something, something unhealthy. I also saw people living at the rhythm of their ancestral genius, but I did not want to ask them to pose.

So here you have the grass huts and broken alleyways, the thatched roofs and pastoral setting in which some sort of drama – a drama I cannot decipher, is being played out.

It is good to know, however, that Ban Nongnak is still not a probleur!

Three Days On A Bike - Temples And Temple Art

Temples and Temple Art

Luckily there are the Temples. The country is awash with them, and the lives of the people are a circular rhythm, tuned to the lunar calendar, of blessings and rituals.

In the towns and cities saffron-robed monks walk like shadows of light.

The artwork on Temple walls is strikingly similar in theme to that on the walls of Catholic churches in Europe: Hotel California – this could be heaven or this could be hell.

Tortures for sinners are graphically detailed as demons cut off hands that reached in life for the sensual and the material. Flesh that strove for pleasure is lacerated by whips or torn by wild beasts. That great old classic, boiling oil, is used on the gluttonous.

Heaven is reserved for those who sat in wondrous rapture at the feet of the Buddha. They get to use long sticks to make fruits fall from trees or walk in placid ecstasy as loving couples in long-term monogamous relationships. A strict warning to all those frequenting the coloured lights of late-night beer gardens and the dull abused spirits of the girls within.

Baskets for sticky rice hang from the ceiling. There are mattresses and sound systems – the Temple is very much a living village space.

There are statues from every epoch. Reb Dovid was kind enough to tell me about ancient monolithic stones in certain Temples along the way. In every Temple there is a main hall and then, behind locked doors, a sanctum holding the most precious statues of the cult. An old monk will often come out and open the doors for you.

For some reason, the floors are often laid with bathroom tiles, giving the places an unpleasant edge, but other than that they are havens of peace and calm; welcome resting spots on the Road.