This was my Backyard - The Country Road to Khao Nor and Khao Kaeo, Nakhon Sawan

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March 15th 2013
Published: March 20th 2013
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'Ten Baht,' said the rugged, heavy-set Thai woman sitting inside the rusty, caged snack shop, holding a two-meter long bamboo switch which she pointed toward the raving mad crowd gathered outside of her office. She took the stick and jabbed at one of the Macaques as it tried to wedge it's way between the worn metal cage and the wretched tin roof, cackling with one eye open and one shut as the boorish beasts looked on with a healthy dose of respect and indifference alike. She opened up the door and emerged from her self-imposed prison and tapped the seat of my motorbike with her stick before tapping the seat of a motorbike next to the cage which looked as if some great and ancient demon had torn through it with jaws of steel and then she laughed a huge hearty laugh as I reached into my pocket to grab my camera but soon thought better of it as the crazed whooping and hollering grew to a fevered pitch as more and more macaque's gathered around hissing and showing fangs and biting tails and scurrying about. I had once witnessed a macaque jump from a tree, grab a bag of popcorn

Photo compliments of Tara Kenyon
and disappear before our friend Jenn had even gotten her helmet off at these the very same mountains and so I tucked the camera back into my pocket as the mob intensified, their screaches reaching an earsplitting frequency. We handed her the ten baht which would guarantee the macaques would not have free range to gnaw upon our motorbike seats and thus guaranteed our asses a cushioned ride back to town and went off to climb some rocks but not before Patrick acquired a giant pack of multi-colored cheeze ball-replica-all-purpose-tourist-wildlife-food and started tossing them about. One among the crowd greedily took hold of his finger and wouldn't let go, and then it scratched his hand which started to bleed and so I thought better about handing them out and of course David took an orange soda and threw it against the curb in the direction of a large male. For kicks he walked over to try and grab it and was promptly sent scurrying back for his life - that fanta was now a possession of the elder-statesman who flashed his gruesome teeth and terrible stare and that was enough of that.

We set off from Nakhon Sawan early

Photo by Tara Kenyon
that morning following a hand drawn map that my friend Gary, a downright old regular guide to Nakhon Sawan - had prepared from memory. Now I had been to Khao Nor and Khao Kaeo before, these being the names of sheer-faced limestone mountains which inexplicitly jettison from the earth toward space and tower cruel and majestic over the pastoral emerald paddies and the lazy, sincere rivers of the central plains. Tara and I and also our friend Jenn had been there once and I was also there again at another point but these trips involved over 47 kilometers on the Asia Highway 1 which is the main highway connecting the great commercial hubs of Northern and Central Thailand - Bangkok to Chiang Mai. In fact, Jenn once caught a flat on this terrible highway - and I say terrible because of the absence of speed enforcement and sheer lamentable conditions of the roads where sudden six inch deep craters or four inch tall mounds that rise out of nowhere running parallel to the tires are the norms and god knows how long this highway was underwater during the floods. Of course the flat was no problem because noble travelers were instantly on the scene with phones in hand and there of course in less than ten minutes a man with a whole motorcycle repair shop on his bike had come, fixed the tire and gone again for a cool $5 USD. This time we were ready to avoid the mournful AH1 and good old Gary drew us a map that took us out the Asia Highway 13 toward Phitsanulok but after a kilometer or two we could veer left out a beautiful country road with signs establishing it as the 1084 which winds along the Mae Nam Ping or Ping River, though right across the river you can also follow the 1082 which will ultimately bring you out to the same destination which is the quaint, ethereal little village of Banphot Phisai. Gary made it known that from there we could head left along a major road which would lead us out to Asia Highway 1 which we would have to follow for only 10 km or so before we reached Khao-Nor and Khao-Keao. This is where our group hit one of those old fashion blessings in disguise, as Vims motorbike started to wobble uncontrolably and we realized he had picked up his first flat in Thailand, but first I'll let you know about the 1084 which you should take the time to cruise along if for whatever reason you are to find yourself wandering the backroads of Nakhon Sawan Province.

This hallowed little trail starts off like any of those small side-highways that you often see in Thailand with lots of open-air food carts, the delicious fumes rising and wafting through the air, ever drawing your eyes wayward to see what was cooking and kids on bicycles who know nothing about the cruel world of coattails and competition and a few businesses and dirty dusty dogs and the like but all that soon fades into the background and you get hit with one of those waves that tells you 'damn, I'm drivin' straight through South East Asia farm-country and there sure aren't any Big C shopping centers to try and tell me that I'm not,' and we were really living in that cool morning air, surrounded by trees and the temperture dropped to what we might call a warm summer morning in The States and boy did it feel good. We passed through a little 'O-Top Village' which is where they specialize in Terra Cotta statues and pots and the like and there were plenty of businesses but not a soul in sight which made for a gone little sight and then there we were back on the open road again and tremendous tree covered hills sat off in the distance with the magnificent spikes and spires of grand and magical hidden temples where we could only imagine the lives the old bhikkus were living in their time-forgotten sanctuaries and it was almost too much to take in, and smelling that fresh tropical air all you can say is 'wow,' or 'mmhmm, yes' and theres no need for much more than that. Every now and then we passed a big group of farmers bent timelessly over the ancient rice fields, women fishing for snakes in the irrigation ditches, shy dark-skinned beauties with tremendous eyes, curious and sad, who didn't have the time or care to self-consciously smear their faces with whitening-creams like the girls in town and old men who napped on straw-mats with half-drank bottles of whiskey and their shirts off and you could bet all you're worth that they didn't give a damn about anything. Max sat on the back of my bike with his gigantic grin, jabbing me in the ribs and giggling in half-English half-Thai about things I would never understand but I didn't care, boy did I love him and his carefree ways. About half way there he started to tell me the Temple he had grown up at was nearby and that he would like to show it to us on the way home and of course we were ready to dig that, alright.

It was right around this time that Vims started wobbling like a man with a handle of Hong Thong half deceased - and so we pulled over and now less that a hundred meters or so from one of the thousands of little motorbike repair shacks that dot even the most remote parts of the Thai countryside. The proprietors were napping in the harmonious splendor of the shade - what time or what day it was did not matter to them, these men have never known a deadline I thought to myself - and the younger man practically leapt out of his shorts and up to shake our hands with the grandest grin in World History and

Photo by Tara Kenyon
he proceeded to pry the tire from the bike, tear out the tube, pull out a big old chunk of twisted metal and then reapply the repaired tire with nothing more that a flat-head screw driver and all for $4 parts and labor included and Max was giggling more uncontrollably than ever and a few local girls across the street stared nervously at us and a man who sat with them walked over to see if David had a girlfriend which unfortunately he did. The man had a look at our map and told us that we could actually avoid Asia Highway 1 altogether by continuing toward Banphot Phisai and then taking a left (I believe the route may be the 1073?) and making our way toward a tiny village of Ban Daen which Max then informed us is the village where he was born and so we realized its a small world even here too. From Ban Daen we could meet back up with the Mae Nam Ping and follow it straight into the backdoor of Khao-Nor and though we did have to stop for directions from some reveling onlookers who were more than curious about what this strange troop of vagabond 'farang' with one 'con Thai' were doing way out there, but they sent us on our way and soon we did in fact meet up with the Mae Nam Ping and after a few twists and turns wound up with the most spectacular and without a doubt jaw-dropping view of our entire journey and I think probably in most if not all of the province. This tiny road, which I can't in good faith call a dirt road since it wasn't, but it is not a road in the standard form that most would imagine, the gentle Mae Nam Ping to our back, separated from the road by a small banana plantation in it's infancy and to our left a grand and sprawling field of bright green rice the size of at least a dozen football fields and the beautiful Khao-Nor and Khao-Kaeo mountain range in the background, a truly awe-inspiring scene to behold and also one that I doubt many souls on this earth save for a few rice and bananna farmers and maybe some birds and buffalo ever lay their eyes upon, whew, what a right and gone scene it was! There was no communication

Dan, Patrick and Max - on the rocks
between bikes, everyone just slowed and stopped in unison, drawn in by the splendor and not too many words were spoken either, just the sound of the river whispering gently while shutters clicked and Max giggled up a furious and joyous interlude while our minds danced with the stark magesty of that hazy morning.

We balled into the temple complex of Khao Nor over roads that rattled the bikes to the frame - I started shouting 'arrrgh' 'ughh' as we hit the bumps to get Max stirred up and he almost collapsed from the back of my bike with the great humor of the scene as we parked next to the monkey food lady in her cage. After ensuring safe keep for our bikes and distributing the monkey feed to the deranged and gone hoards we made for the path that would take us up to the most grand view in Nakhon Sawan Province. At the base of the path was a cave with a reclining Buddha statue that was fenced off but we found another entrance above and so we fell through for a minute and stumbled through the darkness with some cell-phone torch lights before coming across some great and ancient little statues and we offered some incense and listened to the bats and even dug a monk who was meditating way down in the depths of the cave but with the bats and their warlike screaches above gave us the chills and we decided to make for the fresh air. The relatively short but increasingly steep hike up the rock found us stripping off layers of clothes as the cool fresh morning on those breezy roads had given way to an insidious sweltering heat as rivers of sweat poured down our bare skin - but all around us the most beautiful scene was unfolding as what seemed like the entire central plains, the very breadbasket of this great and fertile land spread out before our eyes. We passed a few girls who looked fresh out of high-school and Max stopped to get his kicks for a moment. We looked back to see him copping a bit and god knows where he picked it up 'Hello my name is Max' - in English - 'I come from Singapore, what your name?' 'I don't speak Thai, do you speak English,' 'do you have boyfriend' and the girls giggled

Ryan, David and Vims - do their thing
sheepishly but I think he soon ended the ruse because I heard him whispering to them and then taking some numbers into his phone, but to keep up appearances and keep us laughing he resumed the act as he walked away 'see you again, I love you so much.'

We hit the top of the climb and what a far gone destination it was and we sucked down the last of our water and threw ourselves down on the rocks. With their shirts off Vims and Ryan didn't look too far off from giant versions of the macaques below while David, Patrick, Max and I were nice and smooth. Max seemed amazed by the sheer volume of bristles covering Vims body and then he looked at me laughing and said 'nit noi' - little bit - and then looked below his belly-button where two little hairs so fine one scarcely could have known of their existence poked out and Max rolled with laughter. From the top of these rocks we felt like Kings and reveled in our insignificant sense of accomplishment - the sheer organic beauty and harmony of those statuesque mountains, boundless plains and glistening temples gave me
monkey groomingmonkey groomingmonkey grooming

photo by Tara Kenyon
a pulsating feeling which started at my diaphragm and shot up to my head with the sheer madness that here we were, two kids from Binghamton New York, a Bostonian, a South African, a Kiwi (New Zealand) and a local Thai who through whatever momentous circumstance had come together to be here and see Thailand as it has looked for so many centuries past and that thundering, immaculate and imminent feeling that here we are, right now and how splendid and unruly life can be that we have somehow found ourselves here amongst all of it - I could almost faint with all immensity of it all. And as much as I would like to continue the story, our visit to Max's Temple perhaps, where he spent eight years of his life - 12 years of age to 20 - where this young orphan boy with a heart as big as the plains itself had been taken in, raised, cared for and educated and how we met the elder Monk and he blessed us in Pali, or how Max took us through the gigantic murals depicting the Buddhas life, pride spewing from his eyes as he related the tale to us in every pain-staking detail that his English skills could muster, or about meeting his teacher who had lived in California and who now instructed 90 young monks at open tables at this small, dusty temple that time seems to have forgotten. I could tell you about the hilarious moment - one we still laugh about to this day, when we drove past a gigantic 'oi' - sometype of sugarcane processing - factory which Max must have traveled past innumerable times as he collected his morning alms in his days as a novice monk, one which if you follow the road you literally drive right through the center of... the vulgar, saturated air ripping at your nostrils with a sickeningly sweet and humid rotting quality which literally takes your breath away - 'Max,' I shouted, the wind whipping at our faces, 'do you like this smell?' - 'litton bit,' was his reply, 'sometimes' he added as I began to roar with joy at the implications 'how can you like a smell like this a litton bit?, how can you like something so insidious sometimes?' I looked back at his gigantic smile and saintly eyes and nearly wept at the site of this young bikkhu - joy incarnate on the back of my motorcycle with such a pure, pure heart. And then down the Mae Nam Ping we balled the bikes through tiny riverside villages where life went by at such a woebegone and leisurely pace I thought I might throw down my bike and live there forever amongst the men sitting under dramatic hanging palms at plastic tables sipping Hong Thong Whiskey, little boys mournfully kicking footballs against the fence, little girls jumping and screaming with delight at the sight of foreigners and women washing naked little children with a hose at the side of the road without a care in the world as the river wound by just like our lives, ancient and timeless, I could tell you about all of these things but why not stop and rest with the image that I will no doubt sit back in my older years and reminise upon as one of the fondest and most golden of days with five young men without a care in the world gasping and struggling to breathe in that great and magical air of a Thailand which with great sorrow I already view almost as an ancient photo in a place long since a casualty of progress - a glistening image of vastness, solitude and majestic simplicity.

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20th March 2013

So eloquently written Dan. Fun read...

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