Day 18: End of the road in Si Sa Ket
This is the last day of our Mekong Odyssey when we should pass the 1,600 km mark at Si Sa Ket, a busy market and university town on highway 226 on the route to Nakhon Ratchashima.
The southern Isan railway line runs amost parallel with the road from Ubon Rachathani. Both rail and road are as straight as an arrow, the makings of a pretty monotonous journey for a couple of cyclists used to the meandering route the Mekong River follows from Chiang Khan to Khong Chiam.
Ubon Rachathani has all the features of a busy metropolis with morning rush-hour traffic; students piled high on motor cycles dashing off to college and a profusion of pick-up trucks. After more than two weeks of rural cycling we are glad to leave its crowded streets for the wide open highway heading west.
Again we marvel at the variety of resorts that have taken root on the outskirts of town. Who stays in these picturesque chalets? Knowing the going rate is between Bt300 to Bt500 a night, we wonder how these ventures turn a profit. They probably won’t, but they enhance the value of the land adjacent to the highway and are probably a status symbol if you already have a fleet of pick-ups and Mercedes parked in the garden.
The four-lane divided highway has a generous shoulder for motor cyclists and bikes allowing us to ride comfortably side-by-side, while the passing tour buses and trucks add a drag factor on top of the prevailing wind at our backs to spur us along at a heady 30 kmph.
We roll past the right-hand turning to a famous monastery, 15 km from town, but this is too important for us to miss so we back-track and very cautiously cross the busy highway. The province’s famous Bung Wai Forest Monastery, established in 1975, is the highlight of today’s ride rounding off our 18-days tour on a serious note. We might even discover why we set out on this trip in the first place.
Wat Nanachart is one of 300 forest temples in the country inspired by the revered Abbot Chah who resided in Ubon Ratchathani, until his death in 1992. He was progressive enough to see the need to establish a monastery for expatriates using the English language, while adhering to the strictest of rules adopted by forest monks.
The monastery stands on 375 rai of donated land and has 20 foreign and two Thai monks in residence. The current abbot is a German national, but a long-time resident of Thailand.
Surrounded by rice fields the monastery grounds are a thick forest of bamboo and tall trees, an oasis of calm for those prepared to take their vows.
It is not technically a meditation centre for lay people, but it is possible to stay here and learn from the monks by participating in the same lifestyle that they have adopted.
There no exceptions in the daily routine so spending time here is not a matter to consider lightly, or on the spur of the moment.
Forest monks have no contact with money in any form. They have no savings accounts, or funds set aside to buy food stuff, not even a bar of soap.
Once the daily meal at 1130 is over, they seek refuge in the surrounding forest sitting in tiny wooden shelters where they meditate until sunset.
On the driveway to the wooden buildings, signs ask visitors not to take photographs. Apart from an occasional car arriving there is hardly a sound, just the whispers of conversation and the sound of the birds.
The former abbot and forest monk, who resides for most of the year in the forests of Khao Yai, explains to us the procedure for those who want to stay at the monastery.
It falls into the category of religious tourism, but that does not mean conditions are easy. Those interested must apply in writing to the abbot at least a month in advance explaining their objectives and presenting details of their Buddhist lifestyle. They should have some knowledge of Buddhism and have practiced the religion in a serious manner for the stay to be meaningful.
We talk to a New Zealander who practices Buddhism at a temple in Wellington. He qualifies as a genuine religious tourist, who has visited Thailand on many occasions. Shunning the usual tourist traps, he travelled to Ubon Rachathani to spend two weeks at the monastery.
He described an uncompromising lifestyle that started with him placing his cash in a plastic bag and being shown a safe in the temple office. The monks stood at a distance and pointed to the safe and he deposited his worldly wealth there for the duration of his stay.
We tend to stereotype travellers to Thailand with some justification. Based on the thousands westerners that prop up bars, drinks litres of beer and seek cheap sex in Sukhumvit Road’s bar land, we assume this is the sum total of tourism in Thailand.
But it is not entirely accurate. There are travellers who value Thailand for other features.
We met a Norwegian couple in Ubon Rachathani who were visiting temples and sightseeing in between two diving tours out of Phuket. There were Dutch cyclists, who we never actually saw, but they were certainly touring the Mekong River basin. In Dan Sai we met a Swiss businessman who was travelling north having hired a car to follow the Mekong River.
The monastery’s abbot chatted to us asking us how far we had cycled and wished us a safe journey home. On two of the stout tall trees in the courtyard, the observations of the monastery’s founder had been posted for all to read. I broke the rule and photographed them before hopping on my bike and heading for the gate.
On the outskirts of Si Sa Ket we stopped at an Amazon Cafe for a hot “cappa” and a short break to go online to check the TTR Weekly daily.
By now we had forgiven Amazon for its surly coffee lady who refused us entry on a rainy morning in Phon Phisai, a couple of weeks earlier.
In fact, the coffee makers were so delightful we followed up with an iced Mocca and pineapple pies, while I tapped away on my Sony Laptop reviewing the saga over the PB Air suspension.
I thought it was quite amazing that I could enjoy a very fast WiFi connection courtesy of Amazon Café. What a delightful office location, I thought. I should do this more often.
Phra That Reuang Rung is located on the outskirts of the town on a small country lane in the midst of rice fields and surrounded by small villages.
As we cycled to its colourful frontage, our GPS showed 1,612 km- cycled distance over 18 days since we left Chiang Rai.
We had just enough time to take the stock photograph shaking hands under the shadow of this famous temple located in the heartland of Isan.
Then we set off for Si Sa Ket railway station to board a train for Nakhon Ratchashima for an overnight stay and then a car transfer to Bangkok.
At Si Sa Ket station we bought two second class passenger tickets priced at Bt320 for the 1750 train that would arrive in Nakhon Ratchashima at 2220.
The State Railway of Thailand is quite cycle friendly when you know the routine. The passenger ticket must be bought first and then the next hurdle is to deposit the cycles with the goods department.
Here the station master explained that if we wanted five-star service with porters loading and unloading the cycles then the fee was Bt360. The do-it-yourself way, which requires a sprint to the front of the train to load and then unload the cycles, costs Bt200.
Glue bottle back on the desk, the station master smiles and opens a small tin box containing six amulets. Two of them depict the famous Isan monk, Luang Por Khoon Parisuttho, who resides in a Nakhon Ratchashima temple.
“This will help you on your journeys,” he tells us, as he presents us with the amulets.
I didn’t want to say that our journey was over except for the train ride.
“Considering the state of the railways, perhaps it was to ensure the train got you safely to your destination,” was the pertinent observation.
That was when I recognised I was back in Bangkok; down to earth with a thump. The realities of the travel trade in Thailand; no romance just the plain fact that some things could work better.
Our Mekong Odyssey was over, yet it taught me afresh just how enthralling travel in Thailand can be if you slow to a snail’s pace and enjoy the experience. From time-to-time I recall the station master’s expression of genuine hospitality, noting it was a common thread of our experience throughout our Mekong Odyssey.
Tale of the Tape: Today’s distance 101 km; average speed 22.7 kph; Cumulative distance 1,612.88 km.
Our ride was for charity to support the Prosthesis Foundation of HRH the Princess Mother. You can still pledge support based on the total kms we rode during the Mekong Odyssey, or offer a flat donation, which is ever is convenient.
Email details to the Mekong Odyssey 09 email firstname.lastname@example.org attention Don and Peter.