Unfortunately, my time in Udonthani was over, and there were still 600Km/375 miles between me and the room that waited for me in Bangkok, our final destination on this week-long oddysey. It would mean at least nine hours on the road - longer, because I knew we'd have to take some breaks - and while I felt somewhat sorry asking Suphot to drive such a long day, I really needed to get back.
I dragged myself out of bed, started water in the hot pot and called my friend. He'd already planned to ride his scooter into town to say goodbye, knowing there wouldn't be time for Pot and I to drive out to the family home. I'd said my farewells to them the previous night after our dinner out so I hadn't expected to see them, but I'm glad my friend was going to come see me. I rustled up another marginally acceptable cup of instant Nescafe and then went to take a shower so I could dress for the day and finish the packing I'd (thankfully) done most of the previous night while listening to CNN News on the TV. Pot called to give me an advised departure time, and I set about trying to meet that.
My friend arrived somewhere around 08:30, and by 09:00 I was ready to check out. We'd had a somewhat somber conversation: him speaking in a hopeful way about his planned move; me attempting to be supportive but concerned about his overall safety and well-being in a completely foreign place, thousands of miles from his home and family. I don't think I was all that convincing. He lowered his guard and shared quietly how he didn't feel he had many other choices, and there were tears being shed when my phone rang, reminding me that it was time to get going. I hugged him goodbye and went down to the lobby with his tears still wet on my shirt.
Suphot loaded my bags into the back of his truck while I checked out of the hotel. We got into the cab and I waved farewell to the young man I'd helped, mentored and become rather fond of over the past six or seven years. He took a few steps towards us as we pulled away, still waving. As we turned out of the driveway I looked back to see him turn and cover his face and wondered if I would ever see him again. Time and Fate will tell, I suppose.
At my request we stopped at a 7-Eleven type store at a nearby gas station where I picked up another box of Kleenex, water and something to serve as the breakfast I hadn't taken time for at the hotel. Freshly loaded with fuel and decongestant I said "Home, Jeeves!" to Suphot, and away we went, down Highway 2.
I know we stopped for lunch, but I couldn't tell you where. I nodded off repeatedly as we sailed along, but I recall the hot soup was comforting. Frankly, as congested as I was the stand owner probably could have boiled most anything and I'd have been happy to slurp it up. I drank a lot of water and other fluids just to keep flushing my system out, but I was more of a mess than you need to read about here.
Those of you who've spent much time at all out on the highways and byways of Thailand have undoubtedly been slowed up or stopped at some type of traffic detour/speed trap/shakedown. Some are like the weigh stations you'd see in the U.S., some are legitimate stops for violations, some are to check for safety issues or vehicle infractions and some are mere damned harassment; a way to extract arbitrary fines from drivers based on what they think they can get out of you.
Out in the wide open spaces they're often little more than an unofficial inconvenience, where uniformed officers of one variety or another will pull a driver over for nothing more than a quick "fine" that goes directly into the officer's pocket before they wave you back into traffic and on your way.
Some folks I know there keep a few 100 baht notes folded up and within reach while driving for just such stops, and most think nothing of it. There are more organized stops - actually I'd be more inclined to call them "shake downs", myself - where a group of officers will work together in a semi-official capacity and hand out citations such as the one to the above left Suphot was awarded somewhere in the early afternoon.
I don't recall what he was supposed to have done as we came along in the line of cars waved over en mass, but it really doesn't matter; whatever it is they say the infraction was, it can be easily cleared up on the spot with a payment. Once we did that we were again on our way.
The folks above may have had a little more trouble getting themselves sent on their way. All that photo needs is Granny Clampett riding up on top in her rocking chair, if you ask me. From where I was sitting I could count 18 people loaded into the back of that truck, and it was riding LOW. There was a slightly heated debate between that driver and the officer, and the folks in the back seemed a little concerned as he was taken over to the other officers.
On and on we drove (or rather Suphot drove, I slept a lot) for another handful of hours, stopping only for fuel, a quick walk around a couple of times and dinner at one of the Farm Chokchai restaurant chain locations that I'll write about another time for the Restaurants section.
The sun set before we reached the Big Mango, and it was mid-evening when Pot helped me unload my bags from the truck at my hotel. I settled my tab with him and gave him a big hug, happy to have had the time with him and grateful for his dependability and support along the way. He drove off, and I followed the hotel helper into the lobby to check in. I have rarely been as happy to take a shower and crawl into bed as I was that particular evening.
I'm one who doesn't often remember my dreams, but that night I remember dreaming rich and colorful dreams of Isaan.
So, there you have it: Seven days on the road through Isaan, 25 posts, 185+ photos here and a lot of fond memories for me. If you've made it this far thank you for sticking with it. It's a journey I'd gladly make again myself, and I hope you have the opportunity to get away from the standard stops in Thailand some day to experience some of it, too. It's an amazing place.