Beating Route 11 and The Kindness of Strangers: Lampang to Lamphun, 8 July 2013



Route 11, My Nemesis…

In the end, after the battle from Phrae, I did decide to get back on the bike. Although this decision was made with my customary gracelessness. When we landed at Auangkham Resort, Lampang, I was exhausted. We only had one night booked before cycling to Lamphun, the next stop, but on arrival, the first thing we did was book in for an extra night.

The following morning, over American Breakfast (fried eggs with salad, toast and processed meat) Nick made his announcement:

‘If you decide to take the train to Chiang Mai, Jo, I might give you some of my luggage and still do the ride.’

I had thought briefly that Nick might consider this, I had wondered if perhaps I should suggest it. Nick had coped much better with the hills than I and it would be unfair to take the experience away from him, simply because I did not feel I could go through with it. His suggestion was not unexpected or unreasonable.

But my response was both; so much so that I can’t print it.

Let’s just say, the reaction was not just violent, but graphically so. My pride, my determination to succeed and my fear of being left behind (definitely the most powerful of the three) all rose up and made of me a wild animal.

It also determined the matter. While I did not say it right away, instead, letting the violence hang between us, dipping bread into my runny egg yolk, I knew I had to complete the ride.

The owner of Auangkham was a keen cyclist (with a good sense of humour too, for he lamented missing a season and subsequently carrying too much ‘luggage’ with a rueful tap of his belly). The hills towards Lamphun were a popular club training run, he told us. He indicated with his hand; they go up, he angled his hand, then flat, he held it horizontal, then up, angled, then flat, then up, then flat, then UP, he said, holding his hand up at a much steeper angle and widening his eyes so the balls looked like they might pop from the sockets. Then with a smile, he told us of the colourful melon farm on the other side, where we could enjoy good coffee, just like he had done.


The Delizia Garden

We set off in good spirits; my tyres felt solid for a change (courtesy of the Auangkham bike pump) and I was also looking forward to a chance to redeem myself. In the early morning (for a change) we cycled hard out of town in the company of monks, business owners and school children packed into songthaew (pick-up vans converted into buses). Just as we were passing the Lamphun Police Training Academy, some 15km out of town, the mountains looming and me consequently edgy, there was a beeping behind us. Nothing strange in that, only it went on and on. I looked behind, swearing, to see a man in uniform bearing down on us on a moped.

We were being pulled over, I was sure, until I saw something I recognised in the man’s hand – my glasses case. I must have dropped it. Then I recognised the man, the security guard from Auangkham. Turns out that I left my glasses there. I was touched that the owner had gone to the effort to return them, but as he later wrote in response to my ‘thank you’ email: ‘moped is cheaper that FedEx.’

At the bottom of that stepped climb is the Elephant Consevation Centre. It is rumoured that this is the only ethical elephant centre in Thailand. For that reason it is somewhere I would have liked to visit, having avoided all the others. Only, the climb ahead loomed and I wanted to start while the sun was still low.

The hills were as described, a sequence of huge steps, weaving through the mountain, before one lung stretching climb to the summit.

The summit was a relief (Nick later admitted he had decided not to try and race me to the very top, for which I was grateful) but the highlight of the ride was the melon farm, Delizia Garden. For just a little while, I was in Tuscany, seated on the veranda of the brightly coloured building, hills hills hunched behind. I snacked on melon chunks and grape juice, the closest thing I could get to wine. Clink!


After that, we enjoyed a gentle, rolling journey into Lamphun. Less than 1km from the guesthouse we stood at the side of the road, in fact arguing over which direction to go, when a moped stopped beside us, ridden by two women; Mai and Pai. While I was suspicious, it turned out they just wanted to show us the way, and so we followed them in convoy to the Phaya Inn (er, with a couple of wrong turns on my part when I misunderstood their waving and gesturing).

At the end of a day I had more than I started with. I had regained a little of my self-belief and was also humbled by their kind attention.

The fact bit:
Stayed at Phaya Inn
Cycled 79km, here’s the journey on Strava.
No punctures and no rain.

Ain’t No Mountain: Phrae to Lampang, 6 July 2013


I have to pause before I write this to consider how to introduce and set up what was one of the hardest days of my life. I have to do it justice, I must convey eloquently the struggle…

Until that point, each day had been a struggle; two people in a country they did not know, in physical conditions they were not used to, cycling for long periods and with a significant load. Even when it was flat, it was never easy but we could meet the challenge without too much hardship. And we knew the hills were coming. We knew this day would be the hardest we would face.

I’d studied Google Map repeatedly, done the same with the paper map we carried and trawled the blogs of those who had gone before us. I wanted to know how bad these hills were and I also wanted to know which way to go. It was hard to know exactly what to expect from the sparse information available and I am no pioneer. From Phrae there were two options; the 1023, which wound through a forested national park, or Route 11 which took us past a huge reclining Buddha and then on into the hills. It was not clear from the blogs if anyone had used the 1023 but several bloggers mentioned Route 11, remarking on the length and intensity of one particular hill.

The staff of the Thai Phoom Garden solved the problem. We began talking to the breakfast chef – a man of great curry making skill – and told him our plan for the day. His mouth opened and did not shut, instead he gestured by flapping his hand for one of the girls serving to come over. She had done the journey a lot, he said. Her face, customarily wearing a mask of hospitality, softened when we explained what we were doing. No, don’t take the 1023, she said, too bendy, too fast, she gestured as though her hand was a car. I looked at Nick, the decision was made.

Next the chef wanted to see what kind of bike we would be doing this journey on, laughing to himself, he asked if we would be riding the pink ones…


The morning passed as our mornings usually did, some hard riding, some photograph taking…


Along the road were several places where a whole ark of wooden animals frolicked…


Just chilling…

…and indulgent consumption of sugary drinks. At about 13:00 we reclined beneath the blast of a restaurant fan, the remains of iced coffees, iced lollies, water bottles, red Fanta and crisps strewn before us. This was a rest stop, but also a celebration. We thought we had broken some tough hills and believed the worst was behind us.

The sun was blazing when we got back on the road and I felt in less than good shape. My body does not seem to like coffee mid-journey, so I was only just coping with the heat and the undulating terrain when we descended into a dip, out of which Route 11 crosses the 1023. And, if I had read more carefully, I would have known that this was where it got tough.

Rising from the dip, I stopped to breathe. Nick was keen to go on, at the forefront of his mind was his mantra ‘stopping was failing’ and he did not want to fail. Neither did I, but the idea burned a hole in my motivation and I stopped anyway, with a feeling of having given up; my lungs weren’t working and neither was my brain, defeated as it was by the sight of the ribbon of concrete going up and wrapping the hillside.

It is a fact that I carry a child inside me (I think we all do to some degree). She wants to be approved of, she wants to feel safe and be consoled when she is hurt, she wants adventure and she also wants to be rescued from the jaws of reality. By deciding that it was a good idea to try to cycle from Bangkok to Chiang Mai with all my luggage, I had made that steep, never ending mountainside, the sparse tree covering and the ferocious sun a reality. And she wanted out. I watched as Nick pushed on ahead of me. But the energy that I could force into those pedals diminished and as she made her demands – how much further? when would this be over? – I became weaker still, stopping for what could have been the tenth time, I broke down.

She was terrified. Who would save her? she wanted to know. I was scared, because I knew it was my job and I did not think I could do it. I had no idea how much further we had to climb; there could have been 10km more and all I could manage was 100m at a time. Each time I cycled into the sun it seared every bit of exposed flesh and robbed me of the energy and determination I had left. All the time the road kept on rising and the traffic kept on roaring.

I cried, I paced, I buried my head in my hands and muttered words about giving up. Nick stood patiently. All the while I knew I had to get back on that bike, I was just failing to accept it. I did not believe I could do it. Eventually I did, wobbling from the sparse shade towards the next corner, eyes fixed on the next patch of coverage. It was then that I looked down at my tyres, feeling the spongy lilt to my momentum; sure enough I had a flat again.

Strangely, it offered me respite. I suppose because it was an opportunity to think of something other than that hill, and when it was fixed, I was too – as much as I could be. A little determination had returned and somehow I made it; pedalling at times, pushing at others, I willed that bike and myself to the summit. I have no idea how long it took, how many corners I turned. At the summit I stood there shaking, cold even in the terrible heat. The relief was immense, but I had no idea how I would find the energy for the final 35km of ride. I prayed to somebody right then that there would be no more hills, knowing at the same moment that there was nothing I or anyone else could do about it, I must deal with what was to come.

Shortly after the summit we found a lovely cafe. I ordered melon juice, shivered beneath the fan and marvelled at the ghostly bicycles that cycled endlessly around the boundary of the perfectly manicured garden. And there was only one thing on my mind; I could balance, I could brake, but I could not pedal up any more hills, I simply couldn’t.


In my semi-stupor I did wonder where they got all these bikes from, and furthermore, how the idea came about…

But geography could not give a crap what I felt I could or could not do. There were several more climbs (although none as punishing) and some cruel ones that could be seen from miles away so you knew they were coming.

But I could do it. I did do it. Not gracefully – when Nick decided to act out the finishing line moment a mountain stage of ‘the tour’ as we approached a summit I told him exactly what he could do with himself – but I scraped through and eventually we were rolling downhill into Lamphang and the sunset.


Nearly home…

By then I had already told Nick that I had decided I could not go any further, I would be catching the train to Chiang Mai.

The details:
Stayed at Auangkham Lampang – highly recommended.
Cycled x km, check out what Strava says.
Yes, another puncture, the rear.
No rain, only blazing, soul-sapping sunshine.

A Taste of Things to Come: Uttaradit to Phrae, 4 July 2013



The impending hills…

It was becoming a habit; leaving late, slow, sated on the hotel buffet breakfast. This day, we were also late because we mended yet another puncture; my front tyre this time, for a touch of variety.

And for a final bout of fussing we had to move our saddles. Google diagnosed that we were both suffering from Handlebar Palsy; a common cycling condition where the ulnar nerve becomes compressed due to constant pressure on the heel of the hands, causing numbness and pain. The advice suggested was as follows:

Overall, the cyclist should not be leaning and resting on the bars, the grip should be light;
The seat may need to be moved further back;
The handlebars may be at the incorrect height;
Core muscles should ensure a good position on the bike, rather than leaning.

Eventually, we left, seated a little further from our handlebars, crunching our stomach muscles and crossing our numb fingers in the hope that this would lessen the pain.

Thereafter, the ride to Uttaradit can be categorised by two things; the first of the hill stages and highways lined with durian fruit vendors. The durian is part of the Thailand right of passage due to being an indigenous fruit and for its disgusting odour. Inside the hard, spiked jacket, the fruit is akin to a sulphurous custard. Uttaradit is the principle producer in Thailand. And believe it or not, these fruits are pretty popular. Allegedly, once you get over the smell, you’ll love it. I did not.

I already knew I did not like the stuff when we pulled up at the side of the road to get sugary drinks. When a pleasant woman, one of the stall holders, held out portions for Nick and I on a plate I tried to decline, that is until it began to seem rude to do so. When all I needed was water, I was left smacking my tongue against my cheeks, trying not to gag, trying to push the yellow goo down my throat. All the time smiling, because don’t get me wrong, I was grateful.

The hill came shortly after, first of many on Route 11, as it turned out. It undulated to begin with, small climbs followed by rushing descents, lulling me into a sense that it was actually quite fun. Then someone forgot the drop. The carriageway split into two, leaving a crawler lane for trucks, and soon we were grinding upwards, HGVs chugging and wheezing past us. The road wrapped around the mountain and it was hard to see for more than a few hundred metres. Each corner bore hope that the summit was around it, but yielded only despair when it finally revealed another section of unrelenting climb. Nick was much stronger than me (and he told me later he attacked that hill as much for his Dad as anything, as it would have been his birthday that day) and I watched him push further up the mountain. I hated my body for how tired it was, how it could barely balance at those painful, slow speeds, how it let the front wheel to weave, using up vital energy, while my lungs felt like brittle shrink wrap.

I was later to realise that this hill was actually short. But at the time I was elated when I got to the top – elated, red and drenched in sweat. And then it was all downhill to Den Chai, the outpost some 20km west of Phrae (pronounced ‘prayer’).

We stopped halfway at a small coffee shop, drawn by the regular signposts and the promise of caffeine. Its young female proprietor welcomed us with a huge smile. It turned out she’d been ‘on the ships’ (this means working on a cruise liner, as Nick did for a number of years) before she came back to Thailand with enough money to begin her business, so Nick chatted to her while I thought about how inspiring that was. A cozy wooden cottage, flowered garden, a mural of the mountains painted by her brother and those ubiquitous emblems of travel (frogs on bikes and campervans) displayed on the counter, I felt a warmth from the coffee shop that didn’t come from my mug.


Coffee Heaven


It says it all, frog on a bike

The coffee was great and we left there with new hope (not least because the young owner had confirmed there were no more hills!).

Technical Stuff:

Stayed at Thai Phoom Garden, Phrae.
Cycled 74.4km, check out what Strava says.
No rain, no punctures, balanced by smelly fruit and upward cycling.

The Worst Day Yet: Sukhothai to Uttaradit, 3 July 2013


First it was the stage to Khampaeng Phet, then the one to Sukhothai, now it was the one to Uttaradit. Each stage in sequence was the worst we had done, only to be replaced by the next (little did we know that in a few days time we would wish to be back on those flat, endless roads).

It didn’t begin badly. We wended our way through Sukhothai, the early morning shadows still long, smiling with fond recognition at row after row of bicycles, passing wat after wat, stopping to take photographs of lakes and lily pads spread like a rich carpet before a regal wat. We could have stayed longer in Sukhothai if the kilometres we had to crunch hadn’t been so insistent.


Something to identify with…


So, what’s the problem!?

1.We were tired from the run the day before, having spent approximately 8 hours in (and out of) the saddle.
2. We had slept poorly, having been woken up by ceremonial drums or someone with a sick sense of humour at about 4:00 in the morning.
3. Our hands were more painful than ever, becoming as much of a hindrance as the baking heat.
But the baking heat was still a big problem. With a love of good hotel breakfasts and a belief that they were essential for the cycling day ahead, we stayed too long at the hotel, heading out as the day was starting to warm up to the blistering lunch time incineration level.
4. The first (small) signs of gradient. Nick pedalled at these, spoiling at the mild challenge, where as even the sight of them made me more lethargic and I began to worry about things to come.
5. Food again – the huge (and very delicious) chocolate milkshakes we enjoyed at lunchtime in Si Satchinalai increased the burn. There is a good reason why competitors in the Tour De France do not stop off for milkshake; if I could have got more sluggish, then I did after that shake. That said, I’d take the shake every time, it was amazing!
6. Finally, as sure as night follows day, negativity breeds negativity. Instead of the hoots and the waves, all around us was noisy, fast, unforgiving traffic.

I tried and failed to stir some positive feelings with 80s soft-rock (this usually never fails), then turned on ‘The Woman in White’ audiobook, hoping to distract myself with a story much darker than my own (there’s a logic to it somewhere).

One blessing was that that the hotel was sign-posted from well out of town. With aching hands and hearts we followed these on auto-pilot for kilometre after kilometre before the mecca of the Seeharaj Hotel (home of mid-week karaoke), came into sight.

The facts:

Stayed at Seeharaj Hotel, Uttaradit, where they kindly allowed us to keep the bikes in a cranny, just off the main reception.
Cycled 103km, check out the link on Strava.
No punctures, no rain but my bad attitude made up for that.

Life and Death on Route 101: Khampaeng Phet to Sukhothai, 2 July 2013


The day began badly. The Navarat Heritage Hotel had done away with the buffet breakfast, consequently we only had one course and Nick’s spirits were low. Then they wanted to charge us more than twice the agreed rate for an alleged upgrade that we had not been told about. We stood our ground, but that meant we were already behind schedule when we removed the bikes from the ballroom to the hotel car park.

It was already hot and the air was rent with despair. Thai crows circled overhead. Beneath a tree at the edge of the car park a small fluffy crow, large feet wheeling, was fleeing for cover. If it could have flown it would, but it didn’t know how, it may even have fallen from the nest trying. The flapping and screeching continued while the adolescent bird made shelter.

I set about fixing my panniers, swearing as usual when the handlebar bag lock got stuck. Sweating, beads running down the valley of my back, I glanced up from beneath the peak of my baseball cap; the bird had not gone unnoticed. Two Thai workers, orange masks over noses and mouths, were watching the tree. They had come from the workshop on the other side of the car park. They walked closer, both pulling the masks down, revealing expressions of curiosity and dangerous excitement. They squatted before the tree, rubbed their faces and examined the dust and scrub. Frustrated, hoping they would not find the bird, I barked at Nick to hold my bike steady as I fitted the final item of luggage.

The cries overhead grew and grew.

I didn’t see them take it, only looked up to see their backs as they made their way towards the workshop, trouser bottoms dusty, flip flops hooked over dirty, dry toes. I felt sad because their heads were cocked towards the cupped hand of the older man. While they made their way towards the workshop, excited by the small, fresh life they held, believing they might keep it or save it, the tearing, unified voice of the flock above and the silence that followed confirmed that the young bird, to them at least, was already dead.

I got on my bike and we headed to route 101 with a heavy heart.


The number says it all

It was on this journey that the pain in our hands became more than an annoyance. Before beginning the ride I would not have believed that holding handlebars for hours on end would hurt, or that my hands would actually be the most painful part of my body. The discomfort in the heels of my hands and my middle fingers had always been there; but I had developed a contortionist’s ability to twist my arms and hold the bars back to front or to arrange my fingers like claws over the bars to take the weight from the heels of my hands. But on this day, my tactics failed, my fingers and lower arms were numb by half way into the ride and I let it consume me.

While my wheels were rolling better than they had done in days (courtesy of the bike shop in Khampaeng Phet) my expectations of the ride were low; my heart was not in it. I just wanted crunch the 78km the GPS told us we would be travelling. But after a luxury rest stop (two drinks; iced coffee and Red Fanta) it was not long before I realised I had another puncture, the bike fairly bouncing down the road. It was the rear wheel again.

Like the tyre, our spirits were flat. I cycled with my eyes on the concrete, watching the wings of stunned butterflies tap out their last beats, how a lizard that scuttled into the road, was twisted upwards, before flopping beneath the wheels of a speeding pick-up. Later we saw a dog, disturbingly large across the central white line, one leg detached and blood leaking from its dead mouth.

The GPS let us down; we ended up in flat countryside, without habitation as far as the eye could see. So, we spent the rest of the day looking for signs of life.


Nowhere (the middle of it)

And eventually, beneath a rain-burdened sky, we found our way, passing and riding straight through rural life to put our bad day to bed.


Cow herding


Cycling Thai-style

The stats:
Stayed at the Thai Thai Sukhothai Guesthouse – recommended.
Cycled 91km, here is the geek bit on Strava..
No rain.
One rear puncture on my bike. Again.

Mountains and Way Markers


Mountains are big, to many they are insurmountable, to others they are a problem to be solved and a chance to learn.


The Thai hills between Phrae and Lamphang, best seen from a train

Thailand is behind us and we have moved on to Malaysia; first stop Georgetown. Georgetown has a lot going for it – culture, food, architecture, museums, Queen’s Bay sunrises – but we decided we needed to do something more physical. So, we headed to the edge of town, to the Botanical Gardens to begin the walk to the top of Penang Hill.

The road heads up the hill just left of the entrance to the gardens and is clearly marked for walkers. But there is also a route from inside the garden, a series of steps cut into the humming jungle.


The jungle stairway, from above

Over the last two months I’ve realised that I need to DO something when I am travelling. Doing, rather than observing, allows me to feel more a part of the landscape or environment I’m in. Of course I am still a stranger but I am interacting (even if this means sweating all over and gasping for air). For this reason I would rather walk somewhere, hire a bike, get a public bus (although on this day I was eating my words; we got the wrong bus, which meant a further two bus journeys, not much less than an hour each) or train. That is over an organised tour, where sights are flourished before me, along with the food, drink and t-shirts, before I am gathered up for the next experience; this should appeal to my lazy nature, but it only leaves me feeling empty and frustrated. So, the walk to the top of Penang Hill seemed like a good idea.

Mostly, these steps just go straight up and will not spare you. The path hits the road eventually, passing a rest area where macaques hang out, scrounging food from the locals and nursing their young. At this point, I believed the hard work was done. Sure, we had more hill to go, I estimated 3km of it, but the climb was on concrete and I’d read somewhere that it was only the first kilometre that was really steep.

On the road, glad to be free from the suffocating jungle, we came across the first way marker. A small blue sign, printed with 1.6. I assumed this indicated 1.6km covered from the bottom of the road, and this conviction was strengthened when approximately 100m later we passed 1.7.

The markers climbed with us. The climb became a real climb, signposts indicating that the gradient was 30%, tendons in my legs stretched to their maximum, bent double, breathing hard, willing myself around the next switch-back; I realised I was relying on these markers. They told me I was making progress to the 5km summit. As I passed one marker, I could think about the next. Each time I saw a marker, my waining will was recharged a little and in spite of the sometimes laughable gradient, I was reassured.


Way marker 2.3, a very reassuring marker

As I climbed, I thought more about these little markers. And found I was remembering one of the most awful and the most exhilarating days of the trip. It was the most challenging day of bike riding (although we could not comprehend quite how challenging at the outset), a distance of 110km from Phrae to Lamphang, crossing hunched, indifferent mountains to get there. I had done my research, several cycling bloggers who had beaten the path before us had commented on there being a number of hills, a couple recounting that there was one particularly long climb that took over one hour. With each hill we climbed, I was not sure if that was the big one, but hoped each time that it was. I became increasingly tired. But when the big one came I knew it. It was just after lunch, I was stood less than 1km up a climb on Highway 11 and I couldn’t go on. The gradient was steep and unrelenting, carrying all my luggage, the bike moved no faster than walking pace as I ground the pedals round, wobbling with my weight. My whole body pulsated in the 40 degree heat and where fabric did not cover me, the sun stole what energy I had. My head pounded, telling me I needed more water but our supply was limited and I had no idea how long the climb would last.

A milestone (or kilometre stone, as it really was) had told me we had 45km left to cycle. The number boggled my mind. ‘But the climb,’ something inside me demanded, ‘how long is the climb?’ I could not think of anything beyond the next 5km but I had 45km to worry about. What I really wanted someone or something to tell me, just a little further, only 2km left to go…

There was nobody to rescue me, I knew that. Nobody could make it all go away. But something inside me still demanded to know how far, it raged, it would not, could not go on if it did not know how far. It was not enough for that each 100m I travelled, whether I pushed the bike or rode it was 100m behind me, I would not have to travel that distance again. But I could not believe that I would see the top of that mountain. I did not have the faith that each step or revolution took me closer to what I had set out to do.

When I finally got there, cycling the last 100m in a blind panic, fleeing from the huge (in my mind) red and black bug that continued to harass me, I felt two things; relief and trepidation, because I did not think I could do it again. But heaving my way up Penang Hill in the company of those handy blue and white signs, I realised I relied on way markers way too much.

I believe I need them in other parts of my life; my job, my relationships, the sports I enjoy and that thing I think of most of all, writing. I look for little signs everyday, especially when I am back home, things that will tell me I am doing ok, heading in the right direction. If I cannot find them and don’t tell me what I want to know, I feel despondent. Take my job; wage rises, reviews, promotions, the attitude of my boss and other colleagues, the responses and reactions of customers I meet. One problem with this mindset, I realise, is that you come to rely on them. A second problem is that they might not really be giving you accurate information, there are so many variables out there. The third problem is that the mindset is like that of a child who looks for praise to affirm that the things they do are good. The fourth problem is that it is a poor and misleading substitute for faith.

There is a fifth problem. Its a habit. I have this bad dependent habit that is hard to break. And worse still, what I want to do most in life is to write; never was there an area of life so dry and barren of encouragement and so dependent on faith. Rejection and despondency spring up like brush in the desert and if they can they will snag all your inspiration and ideas and hesitant starts; if you let them. All there is the desire to do it and the faith to keep going.


Smile and keep going

My trip and this blog have been part of that. I have found that the blog stats can suck me in, encage my habit. I can look at those statistics and be energised by a new follower (yes, just one will make me happy) and floored by a post that nobody read. But doesn’t everybody feel that way? What is important is that you (I) don’t give in. There are no signs, no measurements, no-one to tell me yes or no, just a hill waiting to be climbed and a blank screen waiting to be styled in black.


The next mountain, Gunung Brinchang, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

This is a good time to say a big ‘thank you,’ to everybody who does read my posts…


The Turtle and The Spider: Superstition and Buddhism in Thailand


The price of good luck

Before our bike ride began I was in Bangkok, intent on sight-seeing. I decided on the amulet market, close to the Grand Palace, intending to see some of Bangkok and purchase some good luck for our trip.


The Spider and the Turtle

Protection comes pretty cheap in Thailand, I bought ours for less than 150 Baht (£3.15). But I know you can’t really buy good luck. In the UK we use images of four leaf clovers and black cats simply as gestures, images of superstition gone by. However, superstition is very much alive in Thailand. They say that times have been hard; society has shifted from agriculture to industry, insecurity has grasped the nation and in turn they have grasped Buddhism and superstition. But are these one and the same?


The Market

The amulet market is exactly that; a street market and labyrinth of covered stalls that sell amulets (or phra kruang). Stall after stall displays small figures – Buddha, the revered King and Queen – either fashioned from metal or clay or encased in glass. Some of the figures are animals or objects; this is where I found the spider and the turtle.

Later, I researched their meanings:

As the spider spins its web it traps within it all the good fortune and prosperity that is owed to the owner for their effort. The turtle, emblematic of earth and water represents good luck, and good health, insinuated through his long life span, pleasant and non-aggressive nature; or so they say.

I was pleased and a little fascinated by my new trinkets, but was still curious about what they really meant to the Thais. I read that those in high risk professions, taxi drivers for instance, purchase the amulets as protection. Get in any cab in Bangkok and you are likely to see small figures on the dashboard, central, just below the rear view mirror. If you look up you will see stains on the ceiling where incense has been burned as the vehicle was being blessed. Many Thais wear the amulets around their necks, which is where my spider can now be found. I like it there and I like a little superstition and myth, it adds texture to life, so long as you don’t rely on it. So, I wondered how what seemed a deep rooted superstition could be part of the Buddhist religion.

The history bit

Apparently, the practice of stamping religious images onto amulets came over from India, entering Thailand, with Buddhism, in the sixth century. The popularity grew in the 1800s and it retains that popularity today. Enter ‘Thai Amulet’ into eBay if you don’t believe me.

Amulet manufacture

One of the most important things about amulets is their manufacture – of course it is, especially in the land of knock-off goods. The real ones are manufactured by monks, their blessing, rather than their handicraft being the crucial bit. Some say the monks increase manufacture when they are in need of extra funds. Once the amulet has been created it is not unlike a race horse, because dependent on its performance (in this case being the good luck and prosperity delivered to its owner), its value increases astronomically. Speculation takes place on the future value of specific amulets, as others might speculate on the performance and value of an animal. Somebody is getting rich.

So the origin of the amulet is the Buddhist monk, yet at the same time they are shrouded in speculation, material wealth and superstition. I was confused. As I embarked on my travels I knew I wanted to find out more about Buddhism; an ancient philosophy used increasingly in modern counselling and well-being techniques. I discussed my ideas with other people before I left, sometimes with guests at the ski chalet who asked where I was going next.

‘Well Buddhism’s not really a religion,’ I said, trying not to reveal my ignorance. ‘It seems more about a way of living your life, a philosophy of understanding. There is no icon (okay, the Buddha, but there has been more than one Buddha in theory anyone can be a Buddha, it simply means ‘enlightened one’), no wealth and politics, no doctrine, no story, only simple principles by which a person might live a full and contented life.’

Monkgate (no, not the location of the over-priced, under-serviced hotel in York, this is monk scandal on a Catholic priest scale)

I arrive in Thailand and find contradictions to all the philosophical ideals I wanted to believe in; great wats stand among otherwise modest dwellings, they cut the skyline with huge glittering roofs, ornate golden effigies, statues, carvings, huge Buddhas that stand stories high observing the highways from a grassy field. What are these for? Monks manufacture protection and good luck in the form of icons, they carry laptops, have smart phones and wear designer sunglasses. I thought their life was a simple one apart from the materialistic society that screws us all up, but perhaps society’s demands have got bigger than their ideals. I mean, I have no idea how I would manage without WIFI, tablet and smartphone.

Buddhism has had its scandals, as other religions have had theirs. This designer monk turned runaway is the most extreme:


A fascinating, but extreme case. This is likely isolated, but I have come no closer to understanding a belief system that I wanted or needed to believe in.

And what of the spider and the turtle? Well, the turtle bore Nick, his owner, on a safe journey. Not one puncture, no despairing episodes by the side of the road and he was pleasant and patient enough to bear mine. The spider is a different story, with a puncture tally of six overall, I am not sure what Mr Arachnid was doing at those crucial moments. But perhaps there were worse fates that I did not suffer. I mean, I only saw two cockroaches and finished the ride without one mosquito bite. Plus, as I navigated my way from town to town, I did not get significantly lost once; so perhaps I am doing the spider a disservice. I still wear it.