To say that Phetchabun had revealed her lovely charms during our brief respite there would be quite an understatement. It’s mid sized towns like this that make central Thailand so charming, with all of the modern conveniences that the bicycle tourist needs on his day off available. Phetchabun has a Swensens with a big glass window facing onto the street so that the populace can observe the bicycle tourist inflating his stomach with sugary treats. Phetchabun has a central market area where the bicycle tourist can eat a plate of economically priced food and network with the local HIV infected Swedish man who sits there drinking whiskey all day. Phetchabun has an open air bar where the resident fat English expats can spend most of the daylight hours enjoying a refreshing ale or ten with their prostitute wives.
But since we are bicycle tourists we cannot stay in one location for too long lest we be confused with the more lowly garden variety tourist. So Tony and I reluctantly packed our sweat stained tshirts away and I rubbed some petroleum jelly on my balls and arse before saddling up my custom bamboo fixie.
(For those of you interested in the techical details of my fixie, you may be surprised to learn that I made it myself. In the tradition of great Australian backyard innovation, I harvested a set of lugs from a late 80′s aluminium Miyata road bike, found some local bamboo from the edge of a creek near my house in Brisbane, and with the assistance of large quantities of epoxy resin, a blow torch and some experimentation, managed to construct a rideable bamboo bike that didn’t feel like it was going to kill me.)
What followed was several days of difficult riding in the mountains close to the Laos border. Riding a 52×18 fixie didn’t help matters either, and I will admit that there were several occasions where I found myself pushing my bike up hills and cursing the gods of geology. We passed through places like Loei and Nong Bua Lampu before once again finding civilisation. The appearance of a Tesco Lotus sign on the horizon on the outskirts of Udon Thani heralded the availability of air conditioning and the possibility of eating a fried fish in comfort.
After consuming a fried fish and several other plates of food in the Tesco Lotus food court, Tony and I retreated to the serenity of a small cafe elsewhere in the shopping centre. As I sipped my latte, the proprietor of the cafe indicated that I should focus my attention on the beauty salon opposite, where a Thai goddess was trying to get my attention. “She say you look hansom!”, our barista said. And that my friends is why Thailand is the greatest country on earth. Only on Thailand can I walk into a place dressed in dirty cycling clothes, unshaven, stinking of sweat with a bad case of helmet hair and have an angel go out of her way to make my acquaintance.
Of course with the good also comes the bad, and a short time after I exchanged contact details with the goddess, Tony and I sighted our first Camo Man. I won’t go into the history of it all, but to keep it brief Udon Thani was a US military facility during the Vietnam War. Look it up on Wikipedia if you want all the details. The side effect of this is that now that Vietnam Vets are of a retiring age, some of them have decided to come back to a place they hold fond memories for. And why wouldn’t you? Coming to Thailand for some R&R after slugging it out with Charlie would have been like entering paradise. Unfortunately some of these guys just can’t let the past go, and walk around Udon sporting cammo pants, tshirts with stupid military slogans and Adidas sandals. And I think they all have bad backs as they walk around very stiff and upright with the arms sticking out like chicken wings, often with an old Thai boiler attached to one of the wings. I fought hard to suppress the desire to yell out “The war is over dude!”.
After making our way to the Udon Hotel and removing evidence of the day’s exertions, Tony and I went exploring the city by bike, by far the best way to orient oneself and quickly scope out some opportunities for entertainment later in the day. It wasn’t long before we found another large shopping mall, this one in the middle of the city centre. Best of all, this particular mall was equipped with our two all time favourite chain restaurants, MK and Swensens. Both of the these establishments offer high calorie fare for the hungry bicycle tourist, and large glass viewing portals that allowed us to examine the inhabitants of the Udon zoo from a safe distance. I inhaled my usual MK snack of a plate full of roast pig and duck, while Tony sampled the dim sum. More Camo Men ambled past as we stuffed our faces. Ridiculous as the Camo Man is, I did have some sliver of respect for him, as he preferred to spend his waking hours parading around town with his elderly Thai wife, rather than sitting in a bar drinking his liver into oblivion. Perhaps this a defining difference between the American Camo Man and the British Fat Slob?
Next on the agenda was a visit to Swensens, where Tony and I both ordered the diabetes inducing Coit Tower. I had to explain to Tony why I found the dessert amusing, as Americans clearly do not use the word coit to allude to their anus. The Coit is a towering monument to all that is great in America – huge parfait glass full to the brim with ice cream, sickly sweet sauce and whipped cream. After eating our Coits, we endeavoured to linger in Swensens drinking endless cups of water and ogling the teenage waitresses until they kicked us out. But in Thailand, kicking out the customer is not the way it is done. The manager had instructed the staff to cut off our water supply before pointedly placing the bill on our table. Apparently it was time to move on to other entertainments.