02-May-2006 -- My previous confluence visit had been a relatively simple affair: rustle up some agreeable company, get in the car, choose a decent CD, drive as close as possible to the confluence, walk the remaining few hundred metres, take a few photos, and get back in the car to head for dinner.
I wanted to feel with my second expedition that I'd had some sort of adventure. So I resolved that independent motorised transport was out.
Looking at the confluence map of Thailand, there were two red dots just screaming out to be visited east of Bangkok, in the legendary northeastern Isaan province: 15N 103E and 15N 104E. A closer look at my new Michelin map of Thailand revealed that the two confluences lay astonishingly close to the eastern railway line.
I decided to put my bike on the train, jump off at the nearest point, then cycle to the two confluences.
Leaving Hualamphong station at 6:40 on a sunny Tuesday morning, with the bike having been installed safely in the goods wagon at the front of the car, the mission began. An eight-hour journey north and east to Buriram followed - the train ride being an adventure in itself. Carriages in third class became impromptu markets, with hawkers walking up and down the aisles calling out their offerings, from water and beer to grilled chicken, omelettes with rice and fried crickets. The atmosphere was friendly and more than once I was asked what I was doing and where I was going. My Thai being pretty good, but not good enough to explain the motivation behind travelling hundreds of miles in order to reach a place on the map where there was basically nothing to see, I kept my explanation simple and said that I was simply going on a cycling trip through Isaan.
Despite being listed as very close to Ban Salaeng Phan on the confluence website, the train didn't stop at Ban Salaeng Phan, instead passing a few kilometres further. Buriram was as close as I was going to get: about 12 kilometres, as the crow flies. So at twenty to three, I leapt off the train onto Buriram platform, to choruses of 'good luck' from my fellow passengers, and mounted the bike.
I had prepared my map, but I figured I wouldn't need it: I had set the confluence as a 'go to' point on my gps and simply followed the arrow. I rode back along the railway track for a few kilometres, then turned south. I adopted a 'straight line' policy, basically ignoring any sort of geographical reality in favour of following the arrow. I crossed rice fields, rode through streams, passed through villages, climbed over fences, dragged the bike through muddy ditches. It was a difficult route, as there was no way to get any sort of speed going on the bike and I think I had to drag it for a good part of the journey - but one brief tropical downpour and several extended conversations with curious farmers later, I made it to the confluence quite comfortably.
An old woman working in the field next to the confluence came up and started to make conversation, so I asked her if there was an easy way back to Buriram. She pointed to a canal only a hundred metres from where we stood, saying I could ride along the raised banks towards the main road and go from there. Naturally, this was the canal I had highlighted on my own map - the map which I had ignored in favour of following the arrow - and I kicked myself for being so hasty.
A very pleasant ride along the banks of the canal followed, with the late afternoon sun turning the countryside a gorgeous golden colour and the shadows of the trees lengthening across the water. I resolved to come back one day, with better planning and topographical maps, and attempt to do a longer cycling holiday using only back roads and canal banks. This part of the world would be perfect for such a trip.
Back in Buriram, I found a hotel room for 170 baht (about 3.5 euros - I kid you not), showered about six kilos of mud from my person, then set out for dinner and found a nice Thai restaurant run by an Englishman who had married a Buriram girl and settled down here - one of many such unions, I was informed by the waitress. Thus fortified, I had an early night in preparation for the assault on the next confluence - 15N 104E - in the morning.