03-May-2006 -- After bagging 15N 103E, my next destination lay exactly one degree east.
I had checked the railway schedule and discovered that a train left Buriram eastbound at 6:40 in the morning. I therefore set the alarm for 6, knowing that forty minutes would be more than enough to perform whatever tasks needed to be performed before cycling the 200 metres to the station.
The alarm went off at the required time, but as I strode to the bathroom, I noticed to my horror that my bike (parked inside my room for peace of mind) had developed a flat rear tyre.
This was beginning to feel like a bad BBC documentary, when someone is set a relatively simple task yet faces ridiculously obvious obstacles that you just know were introduced by the producers in order to create some sort of drama, however lame.
I decided to shower and make my way to the station anyway, hoping to find a tyre shop at the next destination.
I had pushed my bike to within 25 metres of the station when I heard the word 'payang sia' (payang=tyre, sia=broken) ringing in my ears. An eagle-eyed trishaw rider had spotted the flat tyre and was walking towards me with a wide grin.
The station being a congregating point for trishaw riders, they had all the necessary equipment to perform any sort of bicycle maintenance: and he proceeded to fix my tyre at maximum speed. It was punctured at two points. He fixed both, rode the bike himself to the nearest petrol station to ensure that the tyre pressure was sufficient, and came back. I asked him the fee for this most welcome assistance, and he replied: 'no, no money. You come to our country, we look after you.'
I defy anyone not to fall in love with Thailand after an experience such as this. However, this is typical. There is always someone to help, there is always someone with a solution to a problem; when word gets out that someone needs something, there is always someone appearing from a doorway to offer a way through when there appears to be none. This is a big part of what makes the place so special.
However, I insisted on pressing a quantity of baht into his palm - enough for a bottle of local Saengsom rum, which I was sure he would enjoy with his friends that evening back in his village while telling them the story of the morning's events. Being the musical folk that Isaan people are, perhaps he would even compose a song about it and sing it around the village campfire, seeing as how 'farang' rhymes with 'payang.' Perhaps.
I boarded the train just in time, and settled down with a bottle of soya bean milk and some fresh peanuts bought from a hawker in the train.
The scenery here, further from Bangkok, was beautiful. You see a totally different Thailand from the train. In a car, you could convince yourself that Thailand is made up entirely of dual carriageways, overpasses, u-turn bridges, petrol stations and roadside convenience stores. In a train, your sights are of forests, rice fields, rivers, mountains, little villages, monasteries and temples. People working the land, buffaloes grazing, kids playing in the fields, lone motorcyclists riding along dusty tracks. And this early in the morning, the cool wind through the train's open windows only added to the appeal of the experience.
Even writing about it now is making me want to get back on the train immediately.
I'd estimated that either Samrong Thap or Huai Thap Than would be the best stations to get off at for the next confluence. 'Huai' is stream, and the confluence lay almost directly on the stream according to the map - but when I got within striking distance, the GPS showed that the point was less than 7km from Samrong Thap, so I got off the train there and began the ride.
I had ditched my 'straightlining' policy of the previous day. However I did not want to spend my time looking at the map, so resolved to leave some room for spontaneity while sticking to roads and paths as far as possible. I had plenty of time, and I wasn't too far away.
Five kilometres of riding along the major regional highway put me within two kilometres of the point, and the 'goto' arrow was pointing directly to the right. I turned off down a sand track, found a dead end, came back to the main road, rode another half kilometre, then turned off again onto a gravel track.
The track took me through dry farmland which could have been Australia; fenced-in paddocks with burnt-off vegetation. Through a village about a kilometre from the main road, a right turn, and a ride along a canalside path. Herds of buffalo grazed in the fields.
The path ended and veered off; at this point, I was glad of the bike. I could not have got anywhere near the point in a car. I rode along the thin track, through a forest, and followed the path (with one eye on the direction of the arrow), getting to within six metres of the confluence on the bike.
From here, it was a matter of pushing through dense scrub, avoiding a massive termite mound, and positioning the gps correctly for the photo.
I think these confluence visits are enjoyable for a number of reasons: one, it's simply fun to have a mission and to see the 'distance to' ticking down as you near your target. Two, they take you to places you would never ever go if you weren't confluence hunting. Roads guide us in certain directions and take us where other people have already been. The GPS forces us off established tracks, and takes us to new places. And three, after you've bagged the confluence, you can put the gps away and simply enjoy the scenery as you make your way back to civilisation. I rode through a few more villages, stopped to buy a 7-Up from a local provision store and chatted with the owner for a while, then headed back to the main road. My original plan had been to ride back directly to the nearest railway station, but I was feeling fit so I rode the 50km to Sisaket, the next major town eastbound, had a bowl of noodles, then boarded the train for the ride back to Bangkok.
Putting more than one confluence together in one trip is satisfying. It gives you an appreciation of things: moving one degree across the surface of the earth (without a car) takes a bit of time and effort, and it gives you an idea of where you fit in the scheme of things. I'm looking for more confluences now where I can join the red dots and make another trip out of it...