THE ANDAMAN COAST, THAILAND The first hints of sun exposed the outlines of life from the
darkness. Small clusters of monks, twos and threes, barefoot, shaved headed, in saffron
robes, walked single file cradling their alms bowls like infants as they ventured out into the
waking village. Their only companions, compact, short-haired stray dogs romped in the cool
dawn and their soon-to-end ownership of the normally busy street.
Thais are early morning risers. Necessity and tradition dictate a routine determined not by
the unwavering precision of a clock but revolving around the slightly varying schedule of the
sun. Rice must be ready for the alms bowls. Labor must begin before the heat of the day
arrives. Sunrise marks the opening of Thailand's day.
The alarm on Amanda's wristwatch
sounded just before five in the morning
and I jumped out of bed with a start.
Forcing myself to concentrate I primed
the campstove then ignited the flame
with the flick of the lighter. The stove
roared to life, the sound waking
A pineapple, yellow-green with
ripeness, dulled the knife as I chopped
away its thick, prickly rind. I tried to
skin the papaya like peeling a
cucumber but the blunt knife only
pulled then tore the delicate fruit. With
bowls full we devoured the entire
pineapple and papaya along with
sweet soymilk and brown rice leftover
from the night before.
Rushing to pack her bags Amanda
stacked them in a neat row by the
door. Normally we roll our bikes into
the tile-floored room but the night
before the owner politely refused,
explaining that the hotel was brand
new and suggested we lock them in
the back of the lobby.
In the surrendering darkness we made
two trips each to the front door
carrying the panniers, clipping them to
the bikes in sleepy precision, always
keeping our handlebar bags securely
strapped around our backs with their
valuable contents of passports, cash,
and credit cards. Straddling our bikes,
ready to pedal away, Amanda recited
the results of her previous night's
research, distance to destination,
sights, possible food and
accommodations along the way.
With just enough light to see and be
seen we pedaled out into the streets of
Khao Lak, a beach town on the
Andaman Sea that had been
completely devastated by the Tsunami
the day after Christmas 2004.
While staying near Laem Hom National
Park we spoke with the middle-aged
Dutch owner of the hotel about the
Tsunami as he swept the front porch.
He said, "It was a normal day the busy
season here. I do the regular things I
always do when the hotel is fully
booked." Then he pointed and stared
down the road leading to Bang Ben
beach about fifty meters away, "People
came to me from there. I could see in
their eyes. I thought this is the end of
the world. I don't know. These Thai
people who never get crazy, you
know? They run like the world is over,
screaming. Then the water came, with
the refrigerators, and many things."
"Refrigerators?" Amanda asked,
"Yes, they float," he said gravely, the
terror coming back to him as he
spoke. "You see, the houses have no
doors. The water comes in and take
things away. Everything and
everyone." He moved his suntanned
arm as if he were sweeping the
contents of a desk onto the floor.
"And you?" I asked. "How did you get
away from the water?"
Saddened by the question he said
abruptly, "I left it all. I got my family in
the truck and drive. I left hotel. I don't
care. To the highest mountain. I go
and go. We are fortunate to live."
Posted on door of the mosque down the street I had seen photos of the bodies, the debris,
the complete devastation, and I wanted to ask him more questions. I wanted to ask him how
he could rebuild, how he could spend even a moment in this place. But I knew he had a
Thai wife and children. He had to make a living the only way he was permitted to do so by
the government. And I could see in his eyes that talking about the moment brought back
the terror. So we wished him good luck with his newly rebuilt hotel and let him go on with his
In a land where much is foreign, a routine, no matter how mundane, helps one to cope with
the constant bombardment of the unfamiliar. Yet sticking with a routine can become a
double-edged sword. Familiar patterns permit focus on accomplishing things that take time
and concentration, but a schedule can become a drug that deadens the senses to anything
After three hours of pedaling, somewhere around nine in the morning, with sweat dripping
from every pour in my body Amanda dinged her bell. She was ready for a rest stop and was
excited to have spotted the sign for a PPT station up ahead. These petrol stations with their
convenience stores, clean toilets and food vendors, have become our salvation in Southern
Thailand. Pedaling toward the restroom block behind the gas pumps a pack of stray dogs
raced toward us from their slumber in the shade. Swinging back my arm I pretended to
throw a rock in their direction and they suddenly changed course, running the other way for
Craving something salty we both hovered around the glass case filled with raw vegetables
and noodles. Somehow we communicated our choice and the vendor quickly whipped up
plates full of rice topped with stir-fried vegetables and set them on our wobbly table with
bottles of cold water. A Thai breakfast is not much different from a Thai lunch or a Thai
dinner and the vendor did not question our morning order of spicy, salty food but watched
with interest as we greedily wolfed it down using forks. In Thailand it considered impolite to
put a fork in your mouth. In western countries it would be similar to poking food with the
point of a knife then putting it in your mouth. It seems we always forget to use our forks as
the Thais do, to direct the food onto the spoon.
Bellies full we headed back onto the road and cycled south toward the town of Thai Muang.
According to Amanda's calculations we would be there in a few hours. The relatively flat
road cut through rubber tree plantations alternating with small villages and clumps of
untamed jungle. I enjoyed the time by allowing my mind to wander and found myself
thinking about our routine, breakfast then cycling at dawn, devouring a second breakfast at
nine then another three or four hours of pedaling. After a large lunch and a visit to the
open market for the makings of our night meal we finally see the sites of town before
collapsing into bed at about nine. I wondered how it is we simply fell into this routine.
But I did not have much time to think about it. A dog raced from behind a small stilt house
set back from the road. Normally I try to outrun a chasing dog but this one was larger than
most, and faster, and he was coming straight at me, full out.
Before leaving home I had come up with a few options for dealing with cycle chasing dogs.
The first and most appealing was a little device called the dog daser that produces a high
frequency sound that scares the dog just enough to make it back off. But I read somewhere
that it was not too effective, so I gave up on that idea. Another option was Halt a pepper
spray designed just for dogs. This solution seemed like a good one but then I realized it is
illegal to transport pepper spray on an airplane. So that was out. I thought of carrying a big
stick to whack a mean dog but never found a way to carry one on the bike with me.
Throwing rocks at a dog will usually get it to back away but it is not easy to stop, bend down
and pick up rocks while on a fully loaded bicycle with the animal barreling toward you.
Finding a solution to this dilemma got shuffled further down my to do list and I failed to
prepare for stray dogs.
As the dog sprinted closer to my heals I pedaled as hard as I could, yelled as loud as
possible and pretended to throw rocks. As he caught up he tried to bite my left shoe with
each rotation. Adrenalin kicked in. With a burst of energy and a guttural yell I pedaled
furiously and sped away. He chased for a few meters but then gave up and turned back
Now I must admit, I looked back and hesitated for just a moment. This was a big dog. And
he was mean too. She had seen him chasing me and had stopped. He barreled toward her
at full speed.
I dropped my bike, picked up a handful of rocks and bolted toward them growling like a wild
animal. I was ready to kill, with my bare hands if need be. Amanda had positioned her
bicycle between herself and the animal. As I got closer the dog turned to see me running
and I winged a handful of rocks his way then roared like a wookie.
In a land where the locals are overwhelmingly placid this dog soon realized he was not
dealing with a monk. Seeing me coming he turned back toward the stilt house. I chased,
roaring like an idiot, drawing a woman and young boy from within. The dog was already
long gone and they looked at me like a helmeted, goggled freak from mars running across
their property yelling foreign gibberish at their bushes.
Back on the road we cycled like fiends. Our daily average is a little more than ten miles (16
kilometers) per hour but this day, both flush with adrenaline after our near maiming, we
came close to doubling our average speed. Our home for the night, a row of bungalows off
the beach, turned up earlier than expected.
That evening we cycled into the town of Thai Muang to do some shopping and stopped
along the busy main street. I stood straddling my bike while Amanda put down her kickstand
and visited the dry goods store jumbled with half-full bags of different varieties of rice and
In front of the neighboring shop two old men sat on a wooden bench playing checkers with
worn bottle caps. Dark and cavernous the shop had neat rows of 50-liter plastic water jugs
piled in front. Shirtless, the men wore traditional long crotched pants and rested in lounging
positions, feet up on the bench with elbows crooked around dark knees, hunched over the
checkerboard etched into the bench. I could peer just a few feet into the dusty, cluttered
shop, far enough to see that it provided the hardware for building in the village, trowels,
bags of cement, lengths of rebar, nails.
The sun was setting and the men finished the game then pushed the different colored caps
to their ends of the board. They watched as I dug through my handlebar bag for a small
blinking bike light. As I clasped it in place one of the old men dropped his leg from the
bench, stood up tall and stretched his lean brown body like a cat, bending backward then
forwards. Reaching down he began, at first slowly then growing faster with repetition, to
move the plastic jugs from the sidewalk to the interior of the shop. With the last jug in place
he reached for two open padlocks hanging from a nail and hooked them with the practiced
precision of routine, to the waist of his baggy pants. Pulling a white plastic rope that
dangled from the ceiling he unrolled the metal security gate from above then clasped the
two locks in place.
With the business closed for the day he crooked his neck back and forth as if to stretch out
a kink then sat back down next to his friend on the bench, propped up one foot and
wrapped his arm around his knee. Together they worked to get the bottle caps back into
position and the shop owner made the first move.