Honorary Motoventurer in at the deep end!

(Emily) Our delight at finding such a cheap hostel in Chiang Mai (100 baht a night – £2!) had severely diminished by morning after a crappy night’s sleep on the creaky, lumpy mattresses, being kept awake by teenage backpackers sitting around and telling each other how cool and off the beaten track they were in the common room next door to our dorm (we’re getting too old for this!!) The plan was to hit the road that day as Darren had already sorted himself out with a hire bike – a Kawasaki ER6 road bike – but of course we had James’ puncture to fix first. No problem, surely, as this town was biker central. Wrong! None of the mechanics’ shacks we went to wanted to do the job – perhaps as they were not used to our model of bike – and we struggled even to get advice on where to find a replacement inner tube (if you recall, our spares were conveniently back in Bangkok with the luggage we’d left in storage…) The official Yamaha dealership/service centre couldn’t (wouldn’t?) even help!! Eventually we were directed down to a parts place and they sold us an inner tube which they assured us would work fine, despite being the wrong size. It was cheap so we thought we’d risk it for a biscuit, but by the time we’d walked back to the hostel we’d decided it was just too thin and flimsy to trust (basically we’d just paid four quid for a piece of crap!) While James contacted a couple of Chiang Mai bikers he’d come across on the HUBB (Horizons Unlimited message board) for advice, Darren went off for a wander to seek out any mechanics we might have missed the first time round. Good news; he found somewhere who said they’d be able to fix the puncture, assuming the hole wasn’t too big, so he and James went off to do that while I stayed with our stuff at the hostel (way past check out time by this point!) Eventually we were ready to roll, but by that time it was late afternoon and really not worth setting off so we checked into a different hotel around the corner – a bit pricier, yes, but it had a pool (!) and by sharing a triple room it was still pretty reasonable. We went out to a fantastic Burmese restaurant (run by Darren’s future wife… or one of them!!) and then spent the evening planning a potential route for the next ten days. This was a quite tricky as, instead of using the time to explore around the Chiang Mai area including riding the famous Golden Triangle as originally planned, we now had to factor in a visa run to the Laotian capital of Vientiane which was way out to the south-east. I was feeling so bad about all these infringements into Darren’s riding time – he wouldn’t be able to take his hire bike into Laos so that was going to mean three days off the bike while we got our visa sorted – but he remained cheerfully optimistic, assuring us that he was having a great time whatever we ended up doing (James: in a way, he was seeing the kind of thing that frequently comes up when travelling overland!)

So, finally the day dawned when we could hit the road and we were packed up and ready by 8am (a real rarity for us!) Darren didn’t seem at all nervous considering this was pretty much his first time out on a bike, just keen to get going. This was just as well really as he had a bit of a baptism by fire (this was to become a bit of a theme…)! James led us out onto the ring road around Chiang Mai; first we went the wrong way up a one-way street and had to do a u-turn, then James nearly got taken out by a fat man on a moped and then we filtered up through the busy traffic to get out of town, basically putting ourselves in the direct path of the oncoming traffic! Later, when I was getting sleepy, I took the lead as that seems to shake me out of my stupor. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to go a bit fast (James: a bit??!!) when I’m up front and I don’t think this was particularly helpful to Darren on his first day either! He took it all in his stride though, despite a few hairy moments (you quickly learn to respect gravel!), and was thoroughly enjoying life on the open road. It was unfortunate that we had to spend quite a bit of time on boring highways (we needed to get some miles under our belts to reach Laos as quickly as possible – the sooner we had that out of the way, the better) but there were several scenic stretches, including a stint through national park which was far more like it. One thing I noticed in particular were all the smells permeating my helmet – it sounds like a weird thing to mention but I can honestly say it’s the most fragrant country I’ve ridden in, with scents of blossom, honey and wood-smoke wafting in through my visor. Lovely! Once it got close to dusk, we started to look for somewhere to stop for the night and soon found a ‘resort’ (all accommodation along the road here seemed to have this grand, and somewhat misleading, title) which James managed to barter down to a reasonable price. The woman who ran the place was too cute for words (very Japanese in looks and general demeanour) and was very excited to be hosting us – apparently it was a new development and we were the first guests. That evening we had a few beers and played whist but essentially had an early night. We’d done 433km that day – a lot more than James and I usually ride on an average day and certainly a lot for Darren as a novice rider – so we were all pretty knackered!

At least the next morning we didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn – we were pretty sure we’d covered more than half of the distance to the border town of Nong Khai (hmmm…). Our progress ended up being far slower than the previous day as now we were on twisty, single lane roads but no matter; we were having a whale of a time on the fantastic, sweeping curves that wound through green jungle and rural sleepy villages. We got a lot of waves from locals, more so than usual (I think in general Thai people are too shy and polite) and especially from children. Darren was amazed and delighted by it, and it was great for us to remember how special this open friendliness is having got so used to it on the trip and maybe started to take it for granted. We stopped for a late breakfast/early lunch mid-morning and, after a bit of a charades to combat the language barrier, James and I got plates of mixed rice while Darren ended up with a huge whole fish on a forest worth of salad!! Comedy! (and very tasty!) The roadside cafes in Thailand really are brilliant – not only are they everywhere, even in the middle of nowhere, but they serve great, cheap food and are always beautifully presented. No matter how basic, they usually have hanging baskets and potted plants all over the place and hygiene is excellent. (We love Thailand!) The great roads continued in the afternoon but when we stopped for fuel at about 3pm, having already covered over 200km, we were rather shocked to see a sign for Nong Khai citing a further 200!! Whoops, seems we were slightly off target when estimating distances on the map… At least with the roads being so good, it wasn’t such a hardship to contemplate doing the same again but we were getting a little fatigued by this point after two long days. Numb bum and clutch claw were starting to set in, especially for Darren – I remember how knackered I used to get ‘back in the day’ (ha, ha!)  

So we pushed on and for this last stretch the road was running alongside the Mekong River  with Laos on the far bank. It was awesomely scenic and, of course, evoked images of US military helicopters sweeping down its length back in the Vietnam war (for the boys anyway, I wouldn’t have a clue!) It’s a shame that we were doing the last 60km or so in the dark (another little treat for Darren) as it really was a pretty route, although it did mean that we were still riding during the spectacular sunset. We’d booked a place in Nong Khai and, amazingly, considering it was tucked down a little lane leading to the river bank and it was now dark, we (ok, James) found it without any trouble. The Mut Mee guesthouse was a really nice place, with a chilled out leafy garden by the Mekong and our date of arrival just happened to coincide with a special barbeque in honour of the king’s birthday – bonus! Incidentally, the whole time we’d been riding over the last two days, we come across banner after banner promoting the king and his wife. Seriously, I’m talking literally every 100 metres or so along some streets – people are crazy for him! We got chatting to a guy from Australia who was travelling around southeast Asia on his BMW and he was the bearer of news that put yet another spanner in the works for our plans: the Thai embassy in Vientiane would be closed the following day due to the king’s birthday. Crap. We’d bombed it down here, doing 870km in two days, so that we could cross the border early doors on the Monday morning and be first in the queue at the embassy and now that was all for nothing. Grrrrr! After much deliberation, discussing the pros and cons of all going to Laos the next morning or Darren staying in Nong Khai to do some riding on his own (after all, that’s what he’d hired the bike for!), we all concluded that to hell with it, Darren could leave his bike at the guesthouse and we’d all go across the border, us on the bikes (we needed to get the appropriate paperwork to go with the visas) and Darren on foot – I mean, how often do you get the opportunity to go to Laos, right?

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4 Responses to “Honorary Motoventurer in at the deep end!”

  1. julian says:

    Love it, Emily bike leader! So glad you were loving Thailand (can’t wait for the review of the sailing!).
    Love from dad x

  2. Mama/Kate says:

    I know I’ve said this before but Em, you are one hell-of-a-bad-ass-biker!!!
    That’s a whole lotta miles in 2 days!

  3. joanna says:

    Must say guys – seriously impressed with the pink guesthouse – definitely my kind of place!

    And one more thing – how do you manage to find enough time to do any riding with all that food and drink to savour?

    Lots of love xx

    PS Claire (Childs) had a baby girl this morning – welcome 8lb 2oz Ella to the world!

  4. Darren says:

    It looks like every evening we stopped somewhere we had a cocktail! James done some good haggling at the pink guesthouse. Reading this and looking at the photos brings back so many happy memories.

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