Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

Leaving Thailand – it had to happen eventually!

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

(Emily) All things considered, our night camping out on the floor of the service station really wasn’t too bad (that said, our standards have dropped significantly on this trip, a fact normally made apparent when we bump into other westerners!) As I mentioned in our last entry, the locals were remarkably relaxed about this unscheduled and unwanted event and were proceeding with the usual Thai spirit – remaining cheerful and helping each other out despite the fact that they may have just lost everything.  Many had either elderly relatives or babies and young children with them, all of whom were frankly astonishing in the manner they were dealing with the situation even though most had already been at the station for several days . As we looked for a spot to bed down, the family groups who had already set themselves up on the floor of the disused shop front voluntarily shared out the cardboard boxes they’d found and we were even given free ‘rations’ of rice and meat by the food stall owners! We tried to say we didn’t need it but they insisted (James: Can you imagine this happening at home? If anything the price of food would go up!) I think it was quite a novelty to have three’ farang’ bikers camping out with them! For us it was all very humbling. The night air was warm enough that we didn’t need to get our sleeping bags out so we just slept in our clothes, occasionally woken by the chatter of a new coach load of people turning up to wait it out for the night. The only problem, as ever, was the mosquitoes and cockroaches (an inevitable part of life in the tropics) but once we’d moved further away from the electrical lighting, we were only bothered by the occasional winged assailant.

We were up early in the morning and noticed immediately that some of the cars were starting to leave – perhaps we’d missed an announcement that the road was open? Sadly not, it was people who’d given up and were heading back north. In the end, we decided we’d probably have to do the same after a stroll back down to the flooded road showed no change, in fact it was possibly worse after some more heavy rain in the night. Aid lorries loaded up with small plastic boats lined the road at the edge of the flooding and occasionally a huge truck, complete with snorkel, made it through from the other side, laden with cheering passengers elated to have gotten across (only the vehicles with an elevated exhaust – the aforementioned snorkel – and high road clearance could make it through the neck-high water). It would have been great if we could have got our bikes onto one of these trucks – by all the accounts the impassable stretch was several kilometres long – but aside from the fact that there was no way to mount them, there were other people who needed the transport far more than we did. So we left, having said goodbye and good luck to German Harley guy (he was on the phone to his ‘contacts’ – other Hell’s Angels -  to find somewhere to stay and was getting worried about his dog – a pit-bull naturally – who was alone at his house on Koh Phi Phi, a house which may or may not still be standing…) Our vague plan was to head back in the direction of Chumphon and hopefully find a guesthouse along the way to wait it out for a few days. To say the plan was vague was an understatement – how would we know that the road had become clear when even down here at the floodzone, there was little communication about the state of it? Still, doing something was better than doing nothing, even if that something was riding in the opposite direction of Malaysia and it was now only four days before our visas were due to expire…

Just as we were getting to the tail end of the queue of traffic (which had built up considerably since yesterday when we’d arrived), James noticed an impromptu police shack that had been set up at the side of the road, all but hidden behind parked trucks, and suggested we stop to ask for an update. There didn’t seem much point to me – surely alternative routes would have been communicated to the thousands of stranded motorists  – but as we pulled in, they did seem to be pinning up a makeshift map. No one spoke much English but from what we could tell, this was indeed a diversion route up through the mountains  (now draining of flood waters) that 4x4s were being advised they could take in order to continue further south. One of the police officers gestured that we follow a family in their car who were just about to set off – it was all a bit of a rush, and I was still dubious as to whether we’d got the right end of the stick but James convinced me we should give it a go so off we went!

All too soon, we turned off the main highway and onto a much narrower road, overhung with trees and riddled with potholes. Convinced that we would soon be riding through mud and all sorts (after all, this route had only just reopened after being flooded itself), I turned each corner with a sense of trepidation. However, fortune was smiling on us and apart from the potholes, occasional broken surface and the odd very temporarily repaired bridge, it was a lovely route that climbed up through the green hills. The traffic was all 4x4s and occasionally it ground to a halt convincing me that there must be a really bad bit ahead, but each time we’d simply ride down to the front and find it was something we could get through. Eventually James indicated that he could see roughly where we must be on the map (up until this point, he’d been using geographical features such as hills and rivers to gauge where we were in the absence of any road signs)and we were able to find our way to a marked road running along the hills in the direction of Krabi. The road was made even lovelier by the lack of traffic; clearly not many people had either found out about this route yet or simply hadn’t made it. Slightly more painful was admitting to James that he had been right!! (James: Given the regular practice you have, I’d have thought you’d be used to it by now…..)

At one point, we’d stopped to photograph some spectacular thunder clouds that were gathering rather too close for comfort when a motorist pulled in ahead of us and he and his wife came over to say hi. Tim’s a Yorkshire man but was over in Thailand to visit his wife Lek’s family, and had spotted the foreign plates on the bikes. A biker himself, he’d done his fair share of overlanding so we had a good chat and swapped details before continuing on our respective journeys – so, Hi Tim, hope to catch up with you in Richmond at some point! It wasn’t much later that we were rather surprised to find ourselves in Krabi, a popular beach resort and gateway to many of Thailand’s island getaways; just that morning we’d expected to be spending the evening back in Chumphon waiting anxiously for the flooding to relent and possibly facing the headache of getting a new visa whereas now, here we were, under 400km from the Malaysian border  with four days to spare! And, perhaps most miraculously of all, the sun was actually shining! Staff at our guesthouse confirmed that Krabi too had suffered the unseasonable rains and cold weather experienced by most of the south in recent weeks but that the forecast was set to improve… this might finally be our chance to hit the beach! It was bliss to get a shower and clean away the grime of a night on tiles (literally rather than in the fun way!) and we spent the evening relaxing (after an obligatory pad thai), enjoying a fantastic sunset from the roof of the hotel, happy hour G’n’T in hand!!

The following afternoon, after a long lie in and a sublime banana/coffee shake, we rode two up to the beach at Noppharathara (just 15km away). The tide was way out and we took our time strolling along the deserted sands,  then indulged in a bit of sunbathing before,  once again, watching a glorious sunset. Perfect! So perfect in fact, that we decided to stick around for one more day and this time actually moved from the guesthouse in Krabi town to some accommodation on the beach front – and why not, eh?! The ‘Blue Banyan Bungalows’ seemed suitably fitting. We were a bit on the pink side by the end of our second day on the beach (we may have been away for a year and look all ‘weathered’ but from the neck down we’re still pretty much whiter than white!) so it was just as well that our time as sun-seekers was short lived. That evening, outraged by the prices at the local bar, we bought some beers at a convenience store and sat on the beach to watch yet another stunning sunset. We both agreed it was a great way to spend our last few days in Thailand.

With our visa entering its last 24 hours, we aimed to ride to the city of Hat Yai which, at just over 300km away, would leave just a short hop to the border the following day. Unfortunately, I’d slept terribly and felt decidedly dodgy for the majority of the journey – it was a case of enduring rather than enjoying the ride. But at least the weather was great and we rode through some spectacular scenery. Hat Yai itself is a big, rather ‘grey’ town and decidedly un-Thai, with a large Chinese and Muslim population; it felt rather like we’d left the country already. It took us a while to find a hotel with secure parking and we rejected several places when confronted with rather rude proprietors (which often seems to be the way with Chinese-run businesses here) but we did have a great meal that evening which was a relief: our last repast in Thailand was a sad event indeed and it would have been gutting not to get a good farewell dinner! We were up bright and early on D-Day; we were already cutting it fine to be leaving it until the last day of our visa so didn’t want to push our luck and invite any unforeseen delays by being too cavalier. That said, I’m sure a visa-overstay wouldn’t be quite the same disaster it had been in Uzbekistan (when, you might recall, we were put under house arrest…) We road south west towards the border  under a really hot sun, but were periodically cooled by an incredibly black storm cloud that sat above us almost perfectly dissecting our route, allowing the sun to shine on one side of the road whilst drenching the other! All too soon we were at the border post and having to say good bye to Thailand for good. It’s fair to say, we were really sad to be leaving after all this time (surely we qualify for residency by now?!) but knew we’d be back some day…

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Bangkok (again!) and the road south

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

(Emily) Bangkok was only about 150km away from where we’d crossed in from Cambodia but we knew it could take hours to negotiate our way into the centre so given the hour, we resolved to find a guesthouse en route and do the remainder of the journey the following morning. Typically, for the first time and, of course, now that we really needed it, there were no hotels to be spotted along the way. The sky was looking decidedly grey and we really didn’t fancy making our way through the capital’s congestion in the rain but it looked like we might not have any choice. However, about 80km from Bangkok I spotted what looked like a little cluster of chalets near to the roadside on the other side of the highway. James was dubious as to whether it was actually a place to stay, being as we really were in the middle of nowhere, but we turned around to check it out and sure enough found a very recently constructed development of chalets, complete with their own individual driveways and landscaped lawns! You’ve got to love Thailand! We bartered down to a decent price, got some noodle soup from a shack further down the highway and settled in the for night before the rain started. Job done!

The next morning, it took us a while to find our way back to Lub-d, our favourite hostel in the Silom district of Bangkok, as the last few times we’d been to the city it had been by train and the first time, when we’d rode in, we’d come from the airport in the opposite direction. However, with James’ bloodhound skills and a little help from a passer-by (who, totally unprompted, told us how much she loved the king – obviously important information to impart to strangers to whom you’re giving directions!) we got there without too much trouble. We only intended to be in Bangkok for a few days, just long enough to get some jobs done. Our primary task was to go to the US embassy to speak to someone in person as we had lots of questions about getting our bikes into America that so far the internet had failed to answer (or rather it had come up with conflicting advice – useful!) It turns out that the guy we ended up seeing (not in the embassy itself but at Homeland Security across the road) was pretty much none the wiser and ended up just printing stuff off the internet to give to us! Oh well. In the end, the trusty HUBB (the Horizons Unlimited forum) came up trumps and someone with recent experience pointed us in the right direction. With that ball rolling (we had to start by applying to the US Environmental Protection Agency to ask for a letter of approval), we set about the rest of our to-do list: getting James’ shorts fixed (again – Marcus, he’s still wearing the ones you passed on to him and is loathed to let them go!), getting a new special non-standard sized batch of passport photos for our US applications, buying a road map for Malaysia, me having my haircut – I went to a place in one of the flash malls and was blow dried to within an inch of my life! (James: Em looked like something out of some early 80’s American show, think one of Charlie’s Angels!) and getting our recently purchased external hard-drive replaced (following a little incident in Laos where I ‘may’ have accidently dropped it…)

All these things were easy enough to sort in Bangkok, so within a couple of days we were good to go. We were also mindful that this time we were on the 15 day visa-waiver so needed to make sure we didn’t outstay our welcome (we had no time for a repeat visa run to Laos like we had to drag Darren along for the first time round!) However, we then heard from Dave (the Texan overlander we’d met in Thailand) and John and Kelly (biking couple we’d met around the same time) that they’d be turning up in Bangkok the following day so decided to wait around to see them… which turned into two days… then we randomly bumped into Will and Kate (not of the royal variety), a couple riding from Australia who had been in touch with us via email so wanted to stick around to see them… then Juan arrived and it would have been rude to leave straight away… You get the picture! Needless to say, some great nights out were had and many a beer imbibed. One night there were about ten of us overlanders crammed round the table – everyone just seemed to be in town at once!

The day came, however, when with just seven days left on our visa, we really needed to tear ourselves away and continue on towards Malaysia. Unfortunately, when we read the papers that morning, they were full of reports of widespread flooding and resulting road closures in the south, exactly where we were heading. Ah. We’d known that the region was suffering from unseasonably heavy rain but hadn’t realised that the situation had gotten so serious: the flooding and resulting landslides had destroyed homes, buried villages, caused the airports and ports to close and stranded thousands of locals and tourists on the islands of Phuket and Koh Phi Phi. The whole of southern Thailand had been declared a disaster zone and people were being advised not to travel in the area (most of the roads were closed anyway!) We deliberated for an hour or so (decision-making wasn’t coming easy to us in our hung-over state!) but in the end decided that we’d just have to go for it and if we had to, just as before on the trip, stop wherever there was a blockage or the road stopped and wait it out. If we stayed in Bangkok, not only would be it be more expensive (and we’d likely succumb to liver disease if we carried on drinking every night…) but we’d likely have to apply for a visa extension (not cheap) or do a visa run back into Laos or Cambodia (not again!) Once the old adage ‘let’s risk it for a biscuit’ (James: it’s always served us so ‘well’ in the past!….) had been uttered, there was no going back…

James navigated us out of the city as if he’d lived there all his life ( I just don’t know how he does it!) and we hit the road south. After a hundred kilometres or so, we started to look out for signs of flooding but there was nothing obvious yet. I was finding it a bit disconcerting being back on fast paced, heavily trafficked roads for the first time in a while and the grey skies weren’t helping (when we stopped for soup at lunch I had to put a long sleeved top on – it had been months!) James, meanwhile, was more disgruntled by the fact that our ‘beach week’ had been thwarted: aside from the sailing at Christmas, we hadn’t really had any beach action yet and had been saving it for this week when we made our way down to Malaysia. The plan had been to rise early each morning, follow the coastal roads and then find a quiet beach spot to stop off at each afternoon… not looking likely now! We stopped at a small gulf town called Cha Am that evening, which to all intents and purposes is a beach resort, but although we did have a stroll along the sand we were wearing fleece tops at the time! It turned out to be a lovely stopover though when, after balking at the prices of the hotels (which all seemed empty anyway), we were led by some locals to a small café/homestay up a side street where the lovely Ancham mothered us with tea and homemade profiteroles and made us feel right at home. It’s really great when you stumble a little gem like this and you’re reminded how you’re often rewarded for not booking anything in advance and just seeing what turns up when you get there. (James: just as well as we pretty much never plan ahead!)

Ancham kept calling us over to the tv whenever there was a news article about the weather and from what we could tell, it was still looking pretty bad to the south. More rain was forecast and we were convinced that we’d wake up to torrential downpours and have to stick around in Cha Am for another day (not such a bad prospect in light of Ancham’s homemade cakes but our visa expiration  was fast approaching). Neither of us slept too well, constantly mistaking the rustling of leaves for rain. In actual fact it was dry when we woke up and Cha Am was almost sunny but the sky to the south didn’t look too promising so we covered the backpack with a bin liner and donned our waterproof jackets liners. We fully expected to get wet it was just a question of how many kilometres we’d be able to get  under our belts before the inevitable happened and so we placed our bets. But despite constantly threatening, the rain just didn’t materialise and the 300km+ ride went pretty quickly – time flies when you’re storm dodging! Our target was Chumphon,  which we were led to believe was the start of the flood zone, so we figured that from there we’d get a good idea about situation further on (that is, if we managed to get as far as Chumphon!….) Sure enough, we began to spot telltale ‘large puddles’ about 50km away from the town but nothing disastrous yet and luckily the road remained clear. Even more fortuitous, the rain held off until we’d safely unloaded our kit into our comically small and windowless room and were parking the bikes up at the hotel opposite!

The next morning we hit the road once more, again hoping but not expecting to stay dry. We were amazed to clock 50km, then 100km without getting wet, although the evidence of flooding from the recent heavy rains was now much more apparent  – the lower ground to either side of the road was completed saturated, water rising half way up the tree trucks. At one point James yelled into the intercom that there was a large snake in the middle of the road. He wasn’t sure whether he hit it or avoided it (James: it’s hard to see the road below when you’ve lifted your feet and legs up to the tank to avoid getting a stray fang!) As usual, I didn’t see it! The flooding continued to get worse and worse, with many homes half submerged or even washed away completely. Many times we passed people by the side of the road who were evidently trying to retrieve belongings from the water. Very sad, and it certainly put things in perspective – all we were missing out on were some days on the beach, whereas here were people who’d lost everything they own. We got to about 10km from Surat Thani, our target town for the day and the reported epicentre of the flooding, and were just starting to think that the waters must have receded sufficiently for the roads to stay open when we hit a standstill. Now, in our experience the roads in Thailand are never congested (apart from in Bangkok) so we knew there must be trouble afoot. After parking up behind some lorries on the hard shoulder, James strolled off in the direction of the start of the jam to see what the deal was while I stayed with the bikes, and he returned fifteen minutes later to confirm what we had suspected – we’d reached the flood zone. Apparently, the approach to the upcoming flyover was impassable due to the river breaking its banks. Encouraged by the fact that people were hanging around, we waited for an hour or so too, hoping that it was a temporary delay but once we got curious and went to see the flooded area for ourselves, it became clear that we wouldn’t be going anywhere soon.

Looking for somewhere a bit more comfortable to wait, we made our way through the stationary trucks and cars and rolled into a petrol station forecourt. Unsurprisingly, we weren’t the only ones to seek shelter there but, despite the crowds, everything was remarkably calm and orderly:  the convenience store was already running low on stocks but still everyone bought only what they needed and waited patiently in the long queues; some families with elderly members had set up ‘camp’ in an unused shop front but again, no one else was clamouring to get their own spot despite the ever-increasing possibility that it would be at least morning before the road onward was cleared. It was really refreshing to witness this collective mentality of calm in the face of adversity  (we could just imagine the hard done by moaning and restless children’s screaming had we been back home…) and unlike us, for many people stranded there it was more than  a case of simply not being able to progress to their next destination. One woman, along with her gorgeous and impeccably behaved young daughter, lived in Surat Thani and was unable to get back home after visiting relatives further north. Many others were trying to get to the south to see family members who had potentially lost homes in the flooding.

The hours crept by and by late afternoon,  the inevitable rain had started. We’d been joined by another motorcyclist, a weathered old German biker with his equally weathered black Harley who said he’d been living in Thailand for almost 20 years because ‘there are less rules’ – turns out he was a fully fledged member of the Hell’s Angels and was ‘not welcome back with the German authorities’ whatever that means!… (At least, I think that’s what he said – he didn’t have a whole lot of teeth so it was hard to make out the words!) The three of us rode our bikes up onto the pavement by where we were sitting so we could keep a better eye on them while we waited. There wasn’t a whole lot of information coming through about the road block but just as it started to get dark, a police car with a loud speaker did a lap of the carpark. James went off to find someone who could translate and returned with the news that essentially, they couldn’t project when the road might be opened it (it depended largely on the rain ceasing and allowing time for the waters to recede) but that in any case, it would be happening that evening and that all roads south were closed. So, it looked like we’d be settling in for the night then……

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The Mae Hong Son loop and beyond…

Friday, February 25th, 2011

(Em) Eventually, the time came to tear ourselves away from the comforts of Chiang Mai. We decided to head further north towards the towns of Pai and Mae Hong Son, thus completing the ‘Mae Hong Son’ loop that we’d started back in December with Darren (the loop is basically a circuit of amazing biking roads in the northwest of Thailand; what’s not to like?!) We could have made it to Pai in one day but Juan had recommended a stop at some natural hot springs on the way which not only sounded very appealing but offered the chance to camp, something we hadn’t done since Pakistan. After a great afternoon’s ride, we reached the national park (unfortunately not quite late enough to avoid the exorbitant entrance fee – 20 baht for locals… 200 baht for foreigners!) The scenery was stunning and, bar one other couple who were staying in a chalet, we were the only ones there so we set up our tent in a clearing by a stream and relished being at one with nature again (shame we’d neglected to bring any food with us, whoops!) We had climbed a bit in altitude during the day so rather than braving the night chill and going to the springs that evening, we got up at 5.30am and made our way down the raised wooden walkway in the pitch darkness. Under torch light we walked through the forest for several hundred metres in the direction of the geysers. We smelt the sulphur and felt the increased humidity way before we got there, but on arrival could only hear the sound of water bubbling; the torchlight being completely ineffective as it bounced off the steam clouds that surrounded us. We continued along the path for a while longer, never far from the sound of a stream (presumably water from the geysers) and eventually arrived at a slope where the stream entered a series of small cascading rock pools. A cautious toe dip revealed that the water was indeed bathwater hot so we stripped down to our swimsuits and climbed in. Aaahhhhh! Having not had a bath for nine months (yeah, yeah…), the sensation of being submerged in hot water was absolute bliss. We spent a good 45 minutes in there, just soaking in the heat and watching in silence as the first light of dawn arrived. It really was incredible; here we were, completely alone, lying in hot pools of mineral water with steam swirling above us, listening to the tropical forest wake up all around. Back at our camp, it was clearly going to take a while before we’d be ready to leave as the tent needed to dry out after a heavy dew so, with everything hung up to dry, we walked back into the forest to see the geysers in the daylight.  Very cool! An hour later when we returned to pack up the rest of our kit, dozens of minivans began to appear, each depositing a group of Thai tourists who trooped en masse off into the forest. Good thing we’d got our ‘spa treatment’ out of the way early – it was time for us to get going!

The road onwards to Pai was simply sublime, possibly the best riding road we’ve experienced so far. The Mae Hong Son loop is also known as the ‘Road of 1000 Corners’ (James: Apparently, it’s actually 3934 corners!) and it seemed to me that most of them were crammed into the 150km stretch from Chiang Mai to Pai! Awesome! Brilliant sunshine, smooth tarmac, hardly any other vehicles… just sweeping corner upon sweeping corner. What more could you want? As such, it was almost a disappointment to reach Pai but the feeling didn’t last long. What a cute place (I guess the name should have been a clue!) After a bit of riding around, we found ourselves a sweet little bungalow set in a quiet, shady courtyard for a bargainous 200 baht per night (a little over £4) and then went for a wander. Part of Pai’s charm is in its smallness – it has one main street running perpendicular to the river and this main thoroughfare is pedestrianised, serving nightly as the location of Pai’s ‘Walking Street’ or night market. Basically it meant that each evening we could go for a stroll and enjoy a mini gastronomic tour without breaking the bank; barbecued pork, corn on the cob, rice balls, pad thai, noodle soup… yum! Being small, there wasn’t a huge amount to see in Pai but the pleasure lay in ambling along at a leisurely pace, taking in the quaint fairylight-strewn eclectic shops and cafes with their pastel colours and wooden shutters. Throw in a singing policeman who played with his band on a corner each night in full uniform and we were sold! (James: crime fighter by day, crooner by night!)

To continue the food theme, in Pai we finally did something we’d been long intending to – a cookery course. It’s big business in Thailand (no surprise considering that Thai food regularly comes out in polls as the world’s favourite) but we’d thus far been put off by steep prices and set menus; James was fairly insistent on the dishes he wanted to learn. Lucky for us, in a back street just down the road from our guesthouse was a place offering courses at a reasonable price where you could pick exactly what dishes you wanted to make – perfect! We chose our menu, paid our deposit and agreed to meet Dhao, the proprietor (and more than a little bit cuckoo!) the next morning for a trip to the market. The whole course made for a really great day; fun, sociable and we really did gain the confidence and know-how to cook our favourite Thai meals. There were seven of us ‘students’ and although we were all learning different dishes, Dhao and her assistant managed to get round to each of us to show us the correct techniques while we followed the instructions in our own personal recipe books. James was particularly pleased with his curries (Penang and Masaman) and his Tom Yam soup, whereas I’ll now be able to serve you up a mean Green curry and egg fried rice when we get home (who are we kidding here, it’ll blatantly still be James who does the cooking!) We also got a bit of an arm workout making curry paste using pestle and mortars; you think you know what a paste looks like but apparently not, it requires at least ten minutes more pounding than you think! In addition to expert instruction and inadvertent exercise, part of the deal was eating our creations throughout the day but, with five plates apiece (James: and plenty of chillies!), we struggled and it’s safe to say that we didn’t need any food from the night market that evening!                         

Pai was the perfect place to chill out, read books and catch up on the diary. It may be hard to believe, but we do often find ourselves with a backlog of admin tasks (blog, sorting through photos, replying to emails, reading up on future countries, corresponding on my ongoing insurance claim from the accident in Istanbul etc) so from time to time we just stop somewhere and do our best to catch up. On top of the tasks just mentioned, one day it took me a whole morning just to alter and re-hem a pair of trousers I’d bought (I’m no seamstress), and an entire afternoon setting up my e-reader library on the computer and downloading books! However, as I said, with its laidback vibe and cheap accommodation, Pai was just the place for an extended stay and it was only ten days later when I woke up feeling a bit bored and restless that we decided to pack up and hit the road again. That said, in the end it was with some reluctance that we rode away from our little bungalow – why turn your back on Paradise – but the awesome roads soon took up all our attention. How can one country be quite so picturesque, and more to the point, how come there aren’t more bikers here? (James: a road like this in Europe would be a biking mecca and would be crawling with police!) We’re pretty convinced that the roads in Thailand must have been designed by a motorcyclist!! The great weather continued (we couldn’t think when we’d last seen a cloud), although strangely, despite the perpetual sunshine, the foliage around us was shouting autumn not summer. Technically, Thailand has just three seasons – wet, cool and hot – though even in the cool season (November to February) it’s hotter than most English summer days. I guess ‘autumn’ has to exist somewhere, in the sense of a cycle of the renewal of growth, but it was still odd to be riding in summer weather while leaves are falling from the trees all around you.

Anyway, leaves or no leaves, it was a great route that took us from Pai to Mae Hong Son (we’re sorry, Darren, that our little detour to Laos denied you the pleasure of these roads, we do feel pretty bad about that…) Mae Hong Son was as we remembered – a sleepy little town set around a scenic lake – and we found a cheap guesthouse, complete with kittens (yes!) to stay for a few days. I was pretty engrossed with Barak Obama’s book (surprisingly readable and very interesting) for most of our time we were there whilst James set to work updating some of the pages on our website. One evening we got stuck talking to a bit of a crazy American expat who relished in telling us how this area of northern Thailand is rife with local drug warlords, bandits and Burmese Guerrillas, plus other mercenaries who slip back across the border when they need to, and that he was involved in helping them out with ‘various things’. Strange to hear this perspective when we just spend the whole time going, ‘Thailand is so peaceful and harmonious…’ We don’t doubt there’s some truth to the fact there are bandits, guerrillas and even the odd mercenary in the area, but having the world’s most indiscreet man as their ‘go to’ guy just had us giving each other knowing glances and trying to make our ‘excuses’ to leave, something we obviously did too subtly as he proceeded to walk down the street with us for half an hour, completely abandoning his small market stall (James: mercenary/guerrilla ‘provider’ by day, seller of necklaces and trinkets by night? hmmm…….)

While we were in Mae Hong Son, we took a short day trip out to Nai Soi, a traditional village inhabited by Padaung refugees from Burma. The Padaung are better known as the ‘Long Necks’ in reference to the copper coils the women wear around their necks. There are several such villages in the north of Thailand and, of course, they have become big business for tourism; as such, it’s hard not to see it as exploitative to go and gawp at their culture but most of the women concerned have said that they’re pleased to have a way to make a living, and one which allows them to earn a comparatively high  wage, and that it is certainly preferable to life amid ethnic war in Myanmar. We went by bike, riding two-up on mine as we often do for day trips (it saves petrol and we use mine rather than James’ bike as it’s got no panniers). It was a typically scenic route that took us through villages and paddy fields, though the last two kilometres were dirt track and very steep. We couldn’t see any tour buses being able to make it down the track and indeed, when we got to the entrance of Nai Soi, we were pretty much the only ones there. We paid our entrance fee (the money goes towards an organisation that works to protect the Padaung) and walked down into the village to find scenes of pure rustic simplicity. The village comprised of a single dirt path lined on either side by wooden huts on stilts. In front of each home, we found Padaung women, complete with copper neck coils, hard at work threading large leaves (James: these leaves are huge and had been falling from the trees in recent weeks – not ideal when they hit you in the face!)  on to bamboo strips to be used as roof thatching. Others could be seen making traditional crafts to be sold either directly to visitors like us or to market traders in the local tourist towns.

We got talking to one of the tribeswomen when we bought some postcards from her stall (with our limited luggage space, we weren’t really in a position to buy more) and were surprised to discover that rather than the copper coils actually elongating the women’s necks, it is the weight of them compressing the collar bone and ribs that produces the ‘long neck’ illusion. This sounds a bit gruesome, but it’s been medically proven that the coils cause no discomfort or lasting damage (though I can’t imagine it’s particularly comfortable to sleep with them on, which they do). The woman had a ‘spare’ coil the same size as her own and I was shocked not just at the size of it, but the weight (rather her than me!) She also had a little ‘half coil’ for tourists to try and James wasn’t going to let me get away without a photo! Having seen the village, we headed back to the bike and, after negotiating our way back up the steep dirt track, James pulled in and said it might be a good opportunity for me to experience riding with a pillion! What?! I was pretty reluctant, not feeling anywhere near experienced enough (I’d said several times already on the trip that I couldn’t possibly imagine ever taking someone on the back of my bike), but James convinced me to have a go despite my misgivings (James: for the thousandth time, I had to explain to Em that in actual fact she is now really experienced, not just in kilometres ridden but on pretty much every type of surface and in two dozen countries! Something she tends to forget). Well, it was a very strange sensation to have James get on the back behind me but after a period of initial nerves , I did get used to it and I guess if I can cope with a lump like James then I should be able to give my far daintier sisters and girlfriends a lift when I get back home!…..

Finally, we got the news we’d been waiting for – my passport had arrived at the consul in Chiang Mai. With that, we packed up and left Mae Hong Son, this time taking a slightly different route from the one we’d done with Darren on his last day with us. At the time, we’d been put off by a stretch of road that the map indicated to be potentially unpaved. Having only just got over the trauma of being stuck on the muddy mountain at night, we hadn’t wanted Darren’s last day on the bike to be anxiety filled in any way so had chosen a longer route that was guaranteed to be tarmac. In the end, the road turned out to be fine, just narrow and very, very twisty! In Chiang Mai, we didn’t go back to the biker guesthouse as we knew there were cheaper rooms to be found, and were soon happily ensconced in a basic room at a friendly guesthouse with access to a spacious parking area. This was handy as we still had a few jobs to do on the bikes; believe it or not, I’d been riding with just one wing mirror since the accident in Istanbul (well, we’d finally ditched it in Pakistan after I’d ridden with it swinging annoyingly out of position after a few kilometres each time I set off on my bike). James had also broken one of his mirrors when packing the bikes up to be crated in Kathmandu and we’d just never got round to replacing them! It had long been on our ‘to do’ list but we’d only just started to make inroads on the list in recent weeks when we had more time on our hands. Anyway, we didn’t want to get any old mirrors because they’re prone to vibration with the single cylinder engines on the XT (don’t you know!) so we asked the advice of a local bike mechanic, Joe the German, and he suggested the same as used on the Honda Wave moped. Honda dealers are everywhere in Chiang Mai and it didn’t take long to find the desired items. And the bill? Just 180 baht for the pair – that’s less than £4!! You’ve gotta love Thailand! We also needed to fix our riding goggles as the foam padding around each eye had pretty much disintegrated from months of riding sweat (nice). We’d bought the goggles back in Turkey intending just to use them on dusty roads, but they’re so good we started to ride with them all the time. Try as we might, we couldn’t find any replacement foam so in the end went for some off cuts of soft suede at an upholsterers which I spent the afternoon carefully cutting out and gluing to the goggle frames. Job’s a good’un!

Without Juan, Dean or Dave in Chiang Mai, we drank a lot less beer this time and generally kept a low profile. Dinner each night was a bowl of chicken noodle soup from a street stall or sometimes, just to mix it up a bit, a pad thai. It’s amazing quite how cheaply you can live out here if you want to (though we do have to admit to a growing Cornetto addiction, particularly on James’ part, but at 30p each out here, it’s a luxury we feel we can afford now and again!) We did spend a couple of evenings with a really lovely, and very interesting, couple who’d come over to say hi when they’d seen us arrive on the bikes. Katya and Mirko have been cycling overland together for about eight years and show no signs of stopping any time soon! She’s from Slovenia and he is originally from the Cezch Republic, although he left over 20 ago when the wall came down and is technically no longer a citizen – last time he was there it was still Czechoslovakia! It was fascinating to chat to them about their experiences, and we loved how ‘rounded’ they were (James: proof that travel really does broaden the mind). We also marvelled at their extraordinarily tight budget (they currently had about €250 to their names!) – soon they’re returning to Europe for a month or so to sell some of their handmade jewellery to further finance their travels.

On the Monday morning, we went to the British Consulate to pick up my new passport and with that done, we were free to get back on the road ‘proper’ and make for Laos. We headed north towards the ‘Golden Triangle’ (the ‘triangle’ refers to the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Burma meet, the ‘golden’ is apparently a reference to the local heroin/opium trade!) and by evening arrived in the town of Chiang Rai. It’s not as large or as cosmopolitan as Chiang Mai (in fact, as James commented, Woking has more going on!) but has a steady stream of foreign visitors who come either for the trekking or to make one last stop before Laos (we would be part of the latter group then!) As chance would have it, we hooked up with Juan again who’d just returned from sorting a few things out back home in Spain so the three of us spent a couple of days wandering around, visiting the town’s night market and readying ourselves for country number 23. In the end, Juan got restless (having read a guidebook about the riding in rural Laos) and left before us, but 24 hours later, with our to-do list and blog almost completed, we followed. On the way out of town, we visited one last Thai attraction: Wat Rong Khun. It’s true that in recent months we’d become sufficiently ‘templed out’ but we’d heard that this one was worth a look in. Construction only started in 1997 so it’s a baby among its ancient peers but it certainly takes the prize for grandeur; the ‘White Wat’, as it’s known, is a magnificent edifice of purest white, all at once completely outrageous yet at the same time somehow serene in its opulence in a way that the usual brightly coloured temples are not. We loved everything about it, including the stone dragons guarding the entrance that Juan had likened to the monster from the film ‘Predator’. Strange, but true! Having visited the temple, we continued cross country on small roads, fully intending to stop the night in Chiang Khong on the Thai side, ready to cross over to Laos the next morning. However, we made great time and, having arrived mid-afternoon, decided to head straight over. We love Thailand (you may have picked that up from our blogs?!) but it has to be said, we were excited at the prospect of discovering a new country after what had now become very familiar…

For latest photos click here.

Back in Thailand

Friday, January 28th, 2011

(Em) We left Vietnam with the feeling that we’d not really been able to get to know the country in any real depth, something that gave us a newfound appreciation for the freedom and opportunities that travelling on our bikes allows. Needless to say, we were very excited to be back in Bangkok (for the fourth time!) Unfortunately, our favourite hostel, Lub-d in the Silom district, was fully booked but as luck would have it we found an even newer, more swanky hostel a few blocks away (so new, in fact, that despite it having a potential capacity of 300, there were only a handful of us there and we got a dorm room all to ourselves.) Honestly, the word hostel is just too good for these places; they are stylish, spotlessly clean, have amenities you’d expect from a luxury hotel and the staff are impossibly polite. In fact, the hostels are just another example of how they’re so doing so many things better here than in the western world. Take Bangkok’s newest mall, for instance,The Siam Paragon – it’s like stepping into the future!! Everything is just bigger, better, sleeker and altogether more advanced than we have at home; Paragon even has a supercar showrooms on the fourth floor (god knows how they get the cars up there!), complete with Ferraris, Aston Martins and Lamborghinis. Needless to say, this was one shopping centre James didn’t mind spending time in!

We had to stay a couple of days in Bangkok as we’d arrived at the weekend and needed to wait for Monday to go to the DHL office. As I may have mentioned before, my passport was running out of pages – hard to believe as I’d had my existing one for less than a year, but 23 countries later, many of which liked to make their mark by stamping several pages at a time, I had only two pages remaining. James was fine as he’d had the foresight to get a 48 pager but I needed to get my hands on a new one before we could leave Thailand (the next part of our itinerary was Laos then Cambodia before heading back into Thailand on a new visa, the combination of which would require at least three pages). Our friend Juan had managed to get a new passport from the Spanish embassy in just four days, paying the equivalent of about £22. For a British national? Not so easy! They don’t even issue passports from most embassies anymore, instead allocating a regional ‘hub’ in different parts of the world. The hub for southeast Asia is Hong Kong so that’s where I had to send my application by DHL, along with £120 (not including the considerable cost of sending a return package by commercial courier!), in exchange for a four- six week wait! How can two different EU countries have such vastly different systems and fees for the same EU passport?! (James: oh, and if you want to call the Hong Kong consulate to ask a question? You can’t. The government has outsourced that job to a UK based private company, where you get to speak to somebody reading from a set list of questions and answers. Naturally, they couldn’t answer any of ours! And for this service, you’re charged an international premium rate! It really does make you wonder what you pay your taxes for!)

Anyway, we love Bangkok so as keen as we were to get back to our bikes in Chiang Mai, we didn’t really mind sticking around for DHL to open. We killed time by visiting Jim Thompson’s house which we’d never got around to last time we were here. He was an American who had fallen in love with Thailand when working for the OSS (forerunner to the CIA) during world war II. He returned after the war and developed a passion for Thai culture, using his contacts in the west to promote Thai crafts and produce. He is now a celebrated figure in Thailand, credited with reviving their dwindling silk trade in the 50s and 60s. His house, now a museum, was built to reflect traditional Thai design and was certainly a beautiful and peaceful place to spend a few hours. Incidentally, Jim Thompson went missing when walking in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands in the late ‘60s and was never seen again. (James: There are all sorts of conspiracy theories about his fate, many of which claim he was still on the CIA’s payroll. The fact that his sister, back in the USA, was murdered in the same year has done nothing to quell speculation.) On the way back from Jim Thompson’s house, we experienced Bangkok’s high speed river taxi that hurtles along at a frankly alarming rate through the city’s network of narrow waterways. Passengers huddle behind sheets of tarpaulin that protect them from the wake while two safety helmet clad ‘ticket collectors’ edge deftly along each side of the boat taking fares and leaping on and off when it arrives at the pier to tie the ropes for the five or ten seconds it docks for before powering off again. It’s a jump-on/jump-off service that doesn’t allow for any stragglers – we missed our stop when I hesitated a second too long at the pier and we were moving again before we had a chance to disembark!

A few days later, with the passport sent off, we went to the station to book the night train up to Chiang Mai but, gutted to find out that the next available seats were almost a week away, we had little alternative but to take a nightbus. Unlike in Vietnam, it was a regular coach rather than fully reclining ‘beds’ but it was fairly comfortable and we had the added bonus of being surrounded by a group of excitable Italians so were able to enjoy their dulcet tones throughout the journey!  Arriving in Chiang Mai at six the next morning, we were more than a little nervous as we rounded the corner of the hotel where we’d left the bikes… No need to fear though, there they were just as we’d left them. Good bikes! We felt it would be a bit rude not to stay at the hotel for at least a night after they’d minded our bikes and belongings for so long but the next day we moved up the road to a new ‘biker bar’ and guesthouse that was not only cheaper but was currently housing a fellow overlander we’d been hoping to bump into again ever since Istanbul: Dean! (Anyone who’s followed his blog from our links page will know who we’re talking about). Juan was also in Chiang Mai, plus a lovely overlander from Texas called Dave who was just at the start of his trip, so needless to say we had a few good nights on the beers. It was great to catch up with Dean after so many months; since he and his brother Paul made it to Magadan in Siberia (arriving three weeks after it’s deemed safe, in temperatures as low as minus 20!), Dean had continued on alone, shipping to Japan and then Malaysia, and was now touring Thailand, seemingly seeking out every dirt road he could find!

One evening we all went for a short ride up to a local viewpoint, and  James and I soon realised that we wouldn’t make ideal travel companions for Dean. It didn’t help that I was a bit nervous having not been on my bike for a month (‘skittish’ would just about cover it), but it’s fair to say that Dean is a riding demon! (James: He actually IS a riding demon, having raced as a privateer in the Australian national Supersports series and in the Moto GP support races. True to form, he chose a completely insane racing motocross bike (a KTM 950 Super-Enduro for those who are interested!) for his big overland trip and goes at 140kph everywhere, regardless of terrain!) The ride up did offer us one particularly good laugh, however. Dean had just bought a new satnav for his bike and, because it was car specific, had spent the whole day adapting it and constructing a new mount on his handle bars to fit it to. On the way up the hill, we passed Dean who’d stopped at the side of the road to take a photo of us passing by. Fully expecting him to catch up and blast past us again soon, we continued up to the top then waited, camera at the ready, to return the favour. We waited and waited but still no Dean. Finally, some ten minutes later, he came wheelie-ing around the corner with Juan not far behind. We must have looked perplexed as to why it had taken them so long as Juan just said, ‘I’ll let Dean explain…’ The reason for the delay had us in stitches: having rounded a corner, no doubt giving it some beans, Dean had had an close encounter with a large bird, in fact what was more accurately described as a ‘flying chicken’! Coming out of nowhere, the chicken had struck Dean square in the head and deflected away. Slightly shocked, Dean slowed and turned round to try and retrieve some feathers as a souvenir for his bike (as you do!), only to find, not chicken feathers, but his brand new satnav lying in the road!…. It would appear that Dean’s ‘header’ glanced the chicken into the satnav, breaking his new mount and killing his brand new toy. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but we certainly didn’t have any difficulty in finding the humour in it!! What are the chances?!

Dean left for Laos after a few days but we stuck around for about a week, chilling with Juan and Dave. We were in no hurry to go anywhere any time soon; we had plenty of jobs to do and the wait on my passport meant we couldn’t go to Laos yet anyway. In any event, Chiang Mai is the sort of place you can easily wile away the days. Aside from being a mecca for motorcyclists, it also boasts one of the finest night markets in southeast  Asia, which takes place each Sunday. The first time we went, our feet were aching at the end of the night from the pounding they’d taken: we’d never seen such a huge market that wasn’t a permanent fixture, it went endlessly on for street upon street with stalls selling wooden crafts, hippie clothing, colourful jewellery, freshly cooked food and fruit shakes, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Ambling along, perusing wares and occasionally ducking into a Buddhist temple, all of which were lit up beautifully, made for a very pleasant evening’s activity. Tempting as it was to spend all day every day eating and chatting, one afternoon we went for a ride into Doi Inthanon national park with Juan, a route that took us up to the highest road in Thailand. It proved once again that Thailand’s roads are out of this world, as if we needed reminding (and, you’ll be pleased to know, I got my riding mojo back!) Apart from being good company, Juan and Dave had their uses too! Juan’s a mechanic so he and James had a good session on the bikes, including doing the dreaded valve clearance (a big job for us!) and we finally lowered my forks to match the already lowered rear of the bike. Dave, meanwhile, is a computer whiz so helped us out with some changes to our website and other techy stuff. We didn’t have much we could offer in return (er, Mum you’d be happy to put Dave up if/when he gets to the UK, right?!) but as is always the case with fellow overlanders, they were happy to help out. Our guesthouse was a bit of a magnet for motorcyclists – one overlanding British couple we met were from Farnham, just ten miles down the road from my hometown! And I even managed to hold my own talking ‘shop’ with two old bikers while James was doing mechanics – he was so proud!

A couple of days later, John and Kelly (English and Aussie respectively), an overlanding couple that Dave had already met on the road, arrived. They’d already spent 18 months riding an Enfield Bullet in India (we had to agree to disagree on the merits of that country!) and were now two-up on a big BMW GS (the Enfield had died) that John had had sent out from the UK. It was with them and Dave that we went to Tiger Kingdom, a breeding sanctuary not far from Chiang Mai. James had long been determined that at some point on this trip I should get a baby tiger experience (he knows me so well!) but the opportunity had never arisen… until now! We expected Tiger Kingdom to be thronging with people when we rocked up mid morning but, much like we’d found with many of Thailand’s attractions, it was calm, quiet and peaceful with just a few tourists milling around. We didn’t have to wait long to set eyes on a real life tiger; there was a clear view through from the ticket desk to an large grassy pen in which a beautiful adolescent tiger was prowling about majestically. Awesome! Tiger Kingdom offers the opportunity of a close encounter with a range of tigers of different ages and they use the revenue from tickets to support their breeding programme. We were a little wary as to the legitimacy of the place – we didn’t want to be a part of anything that even whiffed of animal cruelty (such as the tiger park near Bangkok that keeps the cats chained and, most likely, drugged to be docile) – but we hadn’t found any dodgy reports on the internet and Kelly, a trained vet, was suitably convinced that the tigers were healthy and being properly looked after. Obviously, it’s not what nature intended that big cats be penned up and petted by tourists but without breeding programmes such as these, tigers would be even closer to extinction. Sad, but that’s the way it is.

As it was quite expensive, our intention had been to just have a session with the baby tigers but when John, Kelly and Dave all opted for the joint ‘biggest cat/smallest cat’ ticket, we all too readily bowed to peer pressure  – after all, when would we get such an opportunity again? We were ushered into the big tigers’ pen first, and couldn’t quite believe it when we saw, lying down in front of us not a few feet away, three huge tigers! (They were actually only 18 months old as that’s the oldest they can be for human interaction but still, they were huge!) The tigers weren’t restrained in any way, and the handlers had just very small thin sticks to use in the event of a problem, but as long as we didn’t go near or touch the head, and remained at their level, it was all completely safe (apparently!) One at a time we were allowed to lie down next to one of the tigers and rub his tummy – almost too surreal to be believed!! It was an incredible experience, and at the same time quite nerve-wracking – at one point I was stroking one of the tigers and I must have been a little too gentle. Perhaps he mistook my touch for a fly but he reared his head up and around towards me, looking somewhat irritated, and pretty much scared the life out of me! ‘Be firm,’ I was told! When our session was up, we reluctantly dragged ourselves away and made our way down to the ‘nursery’. With the baby tigers up next, it was hard to contain our excitement and inside the pen, we found ourselves confronted by one of the cutest sights we’ll ever see – four sleepy tiger cubs!! The first cubs we played with were 4 months old and already had humungous paddy paws! The handlers suggested that we could be more confident with tigers this age and even rest our heads next to theirs – what a feeling! And then we were shown to the two even smaller cubs, who were just two months old. We were even able to sit with them on our laps, soooo cute! They were all paws, ears and bellies! Throw in a bit of pathetic little meowing and it was almost too much cuteness to handle!! Needless to say, we were five very happy bikers by the end of it and sat outside on the steps for ages just to absorb what had been such a fantastic experience. Check out the photos and I guarantee, you’ll be booking your flight to Thailand before you’re through to the last one!!

For latest photos click here.

Sail away

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

(Emily) Some months ago, whilst we were in India, my dad had mentioned that he had some time off just before Christmas, roughly when we expected to be in Thailand. Dad is mad about sailing and, if he’s not at work flying planes, on the computer (sorry, Dad!) or at a Bruce Springsteen concert, then he’s likely to be found sailing the ocean blue. He’d proposed that we join him and mum (not a keen sailor but willing to leave the safety of land if it meant an opportunity to see us!) for a few days on a catamaran in mid December; all we had to do was get ourselves to the marina in northern Phuket on the right date. From the moment we’d scheduled it in, the prospect of a short luxury break became something to really look forward to, particularly at the end of some of the tougher days’ rides or when we found ourselves spending the night in a particularly depressing hovel!

So, although it was a sad day when Darren had to return his rental bike in Chiang Mai as it put an end to the chapter of ‘The Three Motoventurers’, we were all pretty excited to have the sailing trip and then Vietnam on the horizon. James and I were lucky enough that the guesthouse where we’d stayed for only a few nights in Chiang Mai were happy for us to leave the bikes out front in the gated forecourt, and the lion’s share of our kit in their storage room. I’m not sure if they realised they were agreeing to a whole month – the language barrier made confirming exact details a little tricky – but we were sure (-ish) that all would be fine. It felt very strange to be leaving our bikes all on their lonesome and walking away – after all, we’d been through so much together and, let’s face it, if something happened to them while we were away there wouldn’t be a lot we could do. Still, in some of the countries we’d been to, we’d just had the sense that people were inherently trustworthy  and Thailand was already one of those places. Optimistic perhaps, but it put our minds at ease.

That evening we took the night train down to Bangkok, a little adventure in itself. The way the train is laid out is simple but brilliant – a series of pairs of wide bench seats face each other tables along either side of the carriage then, at around 9pm, the guard comes along to lower a bed down from the wall above in addition to converting the seats below, effectively forming bunkbeds all along the train. Once you’re tucked in with your curtains drawn for privacy, it’s a pretty cosy little set up and they even provide blankets and a pillow. In fact, with the steady rhythm of the train on the tracks to drown out any murmurings and people moving about, you get a better night’s sleep than staying in a dorm! The only downside was that, arriving in Bangkok at 7am, we had to get up early for the beds to be re-converted on the train and then it was a long wait at the hostel before check-in. We had about 36 hours in Bangkok before a second night train down to Phuket so used the time to get some jobs done: a few last minute Christmas presents, picking up our Vietnam visas… oh, and posting the store room key back to the guesthouse in Chiang Mai which James had produced rather sheepishly (James: ahem!) from his pocket! Whilst out at Patpong market, James and I got heard an eerie ‘whooshing’ sound. We followed the lead of everyone around us, ducking under cover just in time before a wall of water came crashing down; we had only just avoided being completely soaked in an unexpected  deluge, the sort unique to tropical countries. No pitter-patter build up, just the strange noise and then, bam! We agreed that it might be a good idea to learn to listen out for the sound now that we were in monsoon territory – after months of desert riding we just weren’t used to it! That evening Juan turned up to say hi having shipped his bike in from Nepal a few days before so we went out for a few beers with him… well, the boys had beers and talked motorbikes, I went to have a pedicure!! (I figured I might as well cast off the whole ‘haven’t washed my hair for a week biker chick’ vibe and embrace the air of someone who goes sailing, ‘dahling’!)

Darren, James and I made our way down south the following evening (another sleeper train from Bangkok to Surat Thani, then a further four hour bus journey down to the island) and quickly discovered that Phuket is well versed in the tourist sting – 600 baht for a taxi to the marina, a fifteen minute journey that would have cost less than 100 in the capital! We declined the taxi (offered in conjunction with the bus which, we suspected, could have dropped us off near the marina themselves) and arranged for the friend of the café owner where we had lunch to take us for a fraction of the price. My parents were due in on a late flight so it fell to us to do the grocery shopping; at Tescos, no less!! I get an abnormal pleasure from supermarket shopping in foreign countries (a phenomenon shared by Darren it turns out!) so was quite excited by the prospect but it actually turned out to be a bit stressful – we were completed out of practice with bulk grocery shopping and, more importantly, the alcohol department was only open in the morning and then from five in the afternoon (it was about 3pm at this point!) This was a major problem – I had been anticipating the regular imbibing of wine as one of the major highlights of the holiday – and the shop was too far from the marina to come back again later. Bizarrely, however, there was an exemption to the (inexplicable) alcohol purchasing rule; you could buy goods outside of set hours so long as you spent over a certain amount – i.e. a lot! Well, if you’re going to force us…! So, back at the marina we were shown down to our catamaran (very flash!) and with the fridge now stocked (with liquids anyway!), we waited to Mum and Dad. It was half one when I finally saw their figures appear in the distance and I ran to the end of the pier to greet them – a very happy reunion! We cracked open the prosecco (James: that Em had insisted on getting!), and spent the next three hours catching up on news from home before, tired and slightly inebriated, bunking down in our (rather spacious) cabins, in eager anticipation of getting out on the open waves in the morning.

The week sailing was fantastic, and completely removed from the reality of our biking lives which by now have become the norm. It was great to see my parents for the first time since Istanbul in June and I was delighted, despite copious piss-taking from James and Darren, (James: copious might be a bit strong!) that Mum had brought decorations to string up on the boat, including some knitted Christmas figures that she had made when I was a child – very nostalgic! We hadn’t expected to have a Christmassy experience at all this year but she had determined to bring Christmas to us, mince pies and all (yes, really!) Sailing out of the marina on the first day (well, motoring really as there wasn’t any wind) we opened presents that the rest of my family had sent from home, including a really touching gift that Jessie and Lizzie (my younger twin sisters) had made with their own fair hands – t-shirts with ‘Motoventurers’ emblazoned down the back!! Look out for their regular appearance in future photos!

Unfortunately, it did take me a while to find my ‘sea legs’ so the rest of the first day I could be found curled in a ball on the netting at the front of the catamaran while James and Darren took it in turns at the helm under Dad’s instruction. I managed to avoid spewing (James: Em prefers to save it for those occasions when we’re invited to someone’s home!!) but it would seem that I’m certainly more at home on a bike than a boat! Luckily, my green gills only lasted 24 hours and from then on I was able to fully enjoy life at sea… and what a tough life it was! Reading trashy mags all day and chatting with mum while Dad, James and Darren saw to the technicalities of sailing, then mooring up by a deserted beach or isolated rock stack at night to enjoy a tasty meal whipped up by James from whatever fresh fish or giant prawns we’d been able to purchase from a passing fishing boat earlier in the day, accompanied by copious amounts of wine, beer and gin and tonic! Mornings were equally challenging – starting the day with a bowl of rum porridge (Dad’s staple, though usually without the rum at home!) and having a little snorkel around or visiting an uninhabited strip of beach for an hour or two before setting sail again… hard times! It was great not to be working to any kind of schedule, and any decisions that needed to be made (what beach shall we visit today?) were hardly taxing. It was a chance just to sunbathe, play Scrabble and cards (Dad demonstrated an annoying ability to win at whist, despite being unsure of the rules, drunk, blind – he’d mislaid his glasses – and half asleep the first time we played!!) and generally do not much at all.

Admittedly, the weather wasn’t great – Phuket and the surrounding area had been experiencing unseasonably late storms in the previous weeks and although we, luckily, didn’t have any ‘high seas’, the skies remained overcast until the last couple of days – but it was still incredibly warm and, in fact, the cloud cover probably did us all a favour; James, Darren and I still managed to lobster up pretty good! We visited the island of Ko Phi Phi, and also moored up one night by ‘The Beach’ (as in from the film) but one of the best things about having the catamaran at our disposal was that we could get away from the typical places that drew hoards tourist charter boats each day (by mid-morning there were 70 lined up along ‘the beach’, so many that those on the beach couldn’t access the water!!) and discover equally stunning, yet untouched, locations. The environment through which we were sailing in the Andaman Sea is absolutely staggering – hundreds of limestone stacks rising out of the water, often concealing hidden lagoons deep within; it all had a rather prehistoric air to it. It was particularly stunning to see in the early morning light or at sunset (and all the better accompanied by a drink in hand!) 

Needless to say, the five days passed very quickly and all too soon it was time to return to the marina in Phuket. After a final lunch together and a teary goodbye, Mum and Dad went off to catch their flight back to the UK (Mum desperately hoping that it wouldn’t be disrupted by snow and prevent them getting home for Christmas) and we caught our bus back up to Surat Thani where we would meet the connecting night train to Bangkok. The bus driver was a bit of a lunatic and the films they were showing on the overhead monitor were hardly of a ‘family nature’ but, given the pouring rain, we were thankful not to be doing the journey on our bikes. One overnight train journey later and we were back in Bangkok and the now familiar Lub-d hostel; it was almost as if the sailing trip had all been a dream, but for the constant sense of swaying that we were all still experiencing (I had it for at least a week afterwards; further proof that I should stick to dry land!) It was Christmas Eve and the hostel was laying on a party so we put on our glad rags (oh no, that’s right, we don’t have any…) and headed over to the sister hostel with Juan and a couple of guys from the hostel, having ourselves a little tuk-tuk race on the way. It was a hilarious evening, if not quite your usual Christmas Eve fare. Some of the staff put on a performance of ‘Lady Marmalade’, complete with lady boy resplendent in hotpants, corset and suspenders (James tried, and succeeded, to orchestrate a photo opportunity of said lady boy giving Darren a kiss…) and the beers and tequila shots were flowing. I somehow managed to come third in a quiz about Thailand (?!), winning yet more beer, and James was gifted a huge bottle of Vodka for coming first in a ‘match the staff to their baby photos competition’! Indeed, winning was evidently in our blood that night as we then joined forces in a ‘pop the balloon between your bodies’ contest and were once again victorious, claiming a hostel t-shirt each and a free night at Lub-d as our spoils. Darren, meanwhile, may not have won any competitions but he was certainly a hit with the ladies (James: or should that read ladyboys!?) Compared with our modest return to the hostel at 1am, Darren’s coming back at seven in the morning did not pass without comment!!!….

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The best laid plans…

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

(James) Having slept like logs in Mae Sariang, we woke the following morning to hear what sounded like the monsoon in full, if a little unseasonal, swing.  Fortunately, further inspection (i.e. getting out of bed) revealed that our window was next to the neighbour’s corrugated iron roof, but that’s not to say it wasn’t still tipping down. It was, and certainly heavily enough that we weren’t going to be heading off if it continued that way. Still, we weren’t too bothered; we’d covered the lion’s share of the two day ride yesterday, so our 150km dash up to Mae Hong Son could wait for the weather to clear, and if it did we’d finally be able to offer Darren a day of small distances, few hours on the bike, and lots of stops at anything that took our fancy, something he’d thus far, at least, been denied and something both Em and I were determined to give him. It’s not to say (I hope!?) that he hadn’t been enjoying himself so far but our daily mileages on fun but twisty roads are harder than they seem. Being a new motorcyclist, as Em or anyone else who’s taken their test will contest, is nothing like being a new driver. As a new driver, you can get in a car and, just sitting there, hit the road and cover large distances, but on a bike you are far less a ‘passenger’, you have to, quite literally, hold on, constantly ensure the correct balance in every bend and guide the bike round. It can be exhausting and twisty roads, although the most fun, are the most tiring. As the new rider grips handlebars tighter, tenses their arms, shoulders and upper body all of the time and concentrates harder on staying the road, they quickly become mentally and physically tired. As you become more experienced, you tend to relax and so does your body thereby increasing your endurance, but that was all irrelevant to Darren, who had been thrown straight into the deep end with long days of near constant twisty roads that would leave him shattered with aching wrists every evening (but it should be said, always grinning and eager to get going every morning!)

With the rain still falling come mid-morning, we decided to go and get some brunch and walked down to the brilliant little family restaurant we’d eaten at the night before where we could sit and keep an eye on the weather. Darren and Em had Thai omelettes (delicious) whilst  I went more experimental with a particularly large plate of stir fried egg with bitter melon (horrendous) which I washed down with pretty much any liquid I could find to dull the taste. By midday we were starting to see little specks of blue poking through the clouds and so decided to go and load up the bikes in readiness and, with our shadows finally making an appearance, deemed the bad weather officially ‘finished’ and set off on our way north. Naturally, within fifteen minutes we were caught in a deluge but with signs everywhere that the storm front had moved on, we kept going and were soon rewarded with sun and rapidly drying roads; just as well as the roads, once again, were a constant and never ending series of sweeping cambered curves that either climbed over crests or swung down though troughs as we ran along or traversed valleys. In short, it was perfect and progress was swift, so swift in fact that by lunchtime we’d already arrived at the junction with the small road that our (large scaled and, as a result, not so detailed) map appeared to suggest would take us to a national park that contained the Mae Surin waterfalls.

Speaking with a local, we ascertained that this road was indeed the right one so rode up it for 11km until we came to the junction with an even smaller road that apparently would take us the remaining 17km to the falls. Any worries that this road might degrade were quickly discarded, for although it was narrow, it was well paved and took us on a fantastic steep and twisting route through the hills, which as we climbed gave us incredible vistas over forested hills and mountains as far as the eye could see. We eventually arrived at the gates of the national park, handed over the 200 Baht entrance fee and caught our first view of the falls at we rode down a steep, moss covered path, sadly making it impossible to stop and take a photo. Having parked up, we walked back over to the viewpoint to find ourselves about 500 metres above and away from the waterfall with no real chance to get up close. A bit of a disappointment really, but it had brought us via a great road and, given that it was still only half past two, we could hit the road and either stop somewhere else or just get to Mae Hong Son early and have plenty of time to ride around a find somewhere to stay (always so much easier to find places and to negotiate a price in daylight). With the decision made not to hang about, we got back on the bikes and followed the path up a different route to get out of the park, and this is where, once again, our plans derailed somewhat.

At the exit of the park, we arrived back at the narrow lane and quickly deduced that if we turned right (where the sign post suggested we go) we’d pass the park entrance and head back south, retracing our route to the main road. The path also continued left but no sign indicated where it might go to so I had a quick look at the map, which appeared to show that the path continued northwards much as it had done up ‘til now (the same thin pink line that indicated a ‘secondary road’). I mentioned this fact to Em and Darren, suggesting that in ‘theory’(and it’s probably important to emphasise the theoretical aspect of my plan at this point…) it would not only save us having to retrace our route south but would lead us back to the road to Mae Hong Son about 50km nearer. With everyone in agreement we turned left and headed down the narrow track. It soon deteriorated but was still more than adequate, and all initially was great as we rode through dense forest, occasionally passing small clearings in the trees that revealed villagers working in their fields, scenes that couldn’t have changed much in centuries. After a couple of slow kilometres, the road suddenly came to a muddy section; not ideal, but at this moment not something to worry about, as it looked like the mud had covered the road (as opposed to the road actually ending and a mud track starting), something we frequently come across, and it being dry mud it wasn’t really going to present any problems to us. As we rounded the next bend, the still mud covered road began a descent down the side of the hill which steepened and twisted as it went. As I, very slowly, rounded the second corner, I saw that the road steepened even further and the mud, which at the top of the slope had been dry and packed, had now, as the recent rains had run down the slope, become thicker and wetter…

With no place to stop or turn around, I tried to signal for the others to stop where they were and wait for me to check the road ahead but they didn’t have a chance of hearing me. With little choice but to keep going down to bottom, I gingerly continued down the slope and, after a couple of hundred metres, I reached the bottom, stopping in a small and fairly remote village. With Em keeping up the rear (at the very beginning of the trip we’d ensured that Em, as the new rider, was always kept in the middle for protection if travelling in a group of three, so we were now using the same system for Darren), a slightly shocked Darren was the next to arrive at the bottom (no mean feat in itself) but, relieved at having made it down in one piece, rode down the middle of the track into the village and not along the edge; an easy mistake to make given that his off road experience consisted of the few kilometres we’d just done! I noticed, all too late, and tried to get him to ride to the side where the mud would not only be less thick but the vegetation and stones would give added traction, but once in the mud, all of his concentration was focused on staying upright. Within a couple of metres, though, he had ground to a halt, his rear wheel spinning wildly but going nowhere. Jumping off my bike to help, it wasn’t hard to see why; not only was his rear tyre coated in a film of mud (it’s important to remember at this point that Darren was riding on a road bike with road tyres, both totally unsuited to our current location), but his equally coated front wheel was jammed solid with mud that had forced its way under his low mudguard, and then having become wedged in had simply put so much pressure on the tyre that it could no longer turn. Having dragged his bike to somewhere drier where we could put it on its side stand and having found some long thin bits of bamboo lying around, we proceeded, with the help of one man from the group of curious villagers that had assembled, to remove said mud and free the wheel. With this done, we had a quick chat to discuss what our next move should be, as Darren was understandably way out of his comfort zone. Our choices were simple enough; the known option 1 – turn back and try to get back on to the decent road, the unknown option 2 – continue on our way up out of the valley floor in the hope that things might improve. Our problem was that the known option would require us to push and heave Darren’s bikes back up the 2km of track to where it would find traction and be ride-able again, something none of us particularly fancied. In retrospect perhaps we should have gone with devil we knew, but standing there at the bottom of that valley with miles of incredibly steep hills all around us we reasoned that if this track continued, it made logical sense that its builders would have routed it along the easiest path, namely along the valley floor, which whilst muddy would at least be flat.

With the decision made and it approaching 3pm, we continued on our way safe in the knowledge that we still had over just over two and half hours of daylight left in which to get to Mae Hong Son. Within minutes of leaving the village, we found that in fact the road builders hadn’t built the road along the easiest path and quickly found ourselves climbing up a very steep track  that snaked its way towards the summit of the adjacent hill. Perhaps things were now looking up and the builders had sensibly built the road along the drier ridges; certainly the track had dried out. But then the road levelled out and continued round the side of the hill where, just before it began to drop into the next valley, we were given a glimpse, through a gap in the trees, of our oh so very remote location. All around us and as far as the eye could see were countless steep hills and narrow gorges with no obvious sign of civilisation or any way out. We slowly began the next descent but this time the mud was even thicker, prompting us to ride on the very far edge of the track where there was a little vegetation and the odd root for traction. The problem with this was that it meant riding right on the edge of a sharp drop down the side of the hill, and any fall would have meant injury and a lost bike – so not ideal! I crept down inch by inch telling the others to wait for me to reach a safe place where I’d be able to let them know what to expect (or if the way proved impossible, prevent them from going any further which would at least mean we’d only have to unload and drag the one bike back up.) With this done, I walked back up and rode Darren’s bike (which was already sliding down even with him trying to stay put!) down, and then Em followed me down. It was now clear to everyone that we’d taken the ‘less desirable’ of the two options available but we had little choice but to continue. A passing villager told us we could expect another 7km of this – we weren’t sure if that meant 7km until it improved or until we reached tarmac but at that moment it didn’t really matter, as given our snail’s pace, the 7km was more than enough to be focusing on.

The next few kilometres were a seemingly never-ending series of increasingly muddy  ascents and descents as we soldiered on at less than a slow walking pace. On each slope, I would go ahead to find a suitable stopping place, and then walk back to report to the others before, if required, taking Darren’s bike and replicating my exact route, with (the nowadays hardcore) Em following my tyre tracks precisely. On those occasions when it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to get off my bike to help, Darren and Em would walk Darren’s – now completely mud covered – bike down together. I have to admit that I was amazed by both of them; Em because she was copingly so calmly with what was hard riding and Darren because he was still managing to keep going even though he found himself in a place where no new rider should be, and he was already absolutely shattered (remember what I said about it being exhausting to ride as a new rider? Well, now imagine doing it on a muddy, steep twisting slope in the middle of the jungle!). As the afternoon went on and people started getting tired, the odd mistake naturally crept in, but Darren, miraculously, only fell off twice, and all the jungle knew it as an almighty scream of frustration was let out! (At least falling in such thick mud meant it was difficult to damage his bike!). Ems only fall (in fact it wasn’t really a fall) was actually my fault (Em: correct!) as, when we got to the one point (incredibly steep muddy bit with an even steeper 120 degree turn) where she felt she really couldn’t do it, she handed the bike to me but I didn’t realise she was ready and it fell back on her, pinning her against a mud bank. It was one of the more comedy moments in the day as Em lay on the bank laughing as she held the bike up with her knee! (Em: some might say comedy, some might say we were getting hysterical by this point!….)

With dusk now approaching (we really didn’t want to be out here after dark!) and our 7km now completed, we reached a small settlement at which the path split (not according to our map it didn’t!). Not wanting to take the wrong one, I went to find a very surprised villager who indicated that the less maintained of the two was one the one we needed to take, and that it was another 12km (so it was 17km not 7km!) to go. With little choice we continued on and climbed higher than we had at any time so far, a bonus in a way as it at least meant that we were riding on drier ground and could go a few kph faster, and with us all riding instead of doing small sections one at a time, our pace picked up a little. We eventually found ourselves riding along a ridge on the crest of a hill giving us an amazing view all round (although I’m told that I was the only one to notice this!). Eventually and inevitably the track began to descend, but not before we were able to stop and watch the most spectacular sunset as the sky seemingly went through the complete range of every shade of orange and red whilst the clouds sitting in the countless valleys below turned a shade of bluey-purple. It was one of those moments you just want to sit and savour but my concerns now turned to the fact that we would be doing the remaining distance in the dark.

We continued on down paths that were bone dry (of course, now it was loose dirt we had to contend with!) but increasingly steep. The added challenge of riding in the dark was not helping a now shattered Darren so it was agreed that on the particularly steep or difficult bits, I would ride sections of a couple of hundred metres or so and then come back up on foot every time to take over. Darren’s bike was indeed a handful, having far less grip than ours; I would have to enter into a semi-controlled slide to get it down certain sections and hope that its thankfully low seat height would allow me to use my legs to keep it upright if it went from under me. Whilst this was undoubtedly the only real option available to us, I was aware of the fact that we might be reaching the limits of we could do tonight. One option was to simply stop up here where it was dry, put the tent up and wait until morning when, rested, we could continue in the light. However, we now had the added problem that our fuel, given our poor progress, might be running low. If that were the case, we might have to pool our supply into one bike which I would have to ride out, find extra fuel and then return on foot. Until the reserve lights came on though, we’d keep going. Night quickly fell and we found ourselves in absolute pitch darkness, but continued our system of going ahead a few hundred metres or so and then going back to collect another bike, and keeping this going until we reached a section that was more manageable. It was slow progress  but progress none the less. Occasionally, as I walked back up in the blackness I’d hear the unjungle-like scream of frustration from Darren, who despite being at a complete standstill with brakes on, bike in gear and feet planted, was still sliding slowly down the hill! (I even heard the sound of a helmet being thrown to the floor at one point but not having seen it can only speculate!…) We continued like this for the next two hours and, at one point when we’d got both Darren and Em safely to the bottom of the next slope, I walked back up the steep  400 metre path (without my torch) and actually got lost – that is to say I couldn’t find my bike! I was pretty sure I was where it should have been, but walking around the area where I thought I’d left it with my hands flailing blindly about I simply couldn’t find it. In the end, it took me about ten slightly panicked minutes before I walked into it, but not before I’d managed to completely freak myself out. Whilst frantically searching for my bike I’d heard a rustle and then thought I saw what I could only assume was a pair of eyes. It suddenly occurred to me that having tried and failed to find tigers in India and Nepal,  how depressingly ironic it would be if I was attacked and eaten by a bloody tiger because I couldn’t find my bike!

Having rejoined the others, we continued on as we had before and suddenly, an hour and half after sunset, we spied what looked like tarmac ahead of us, and on reaching it I could see Darren waving wildly in celebration as we managed to get into second gear for the first time in hours. Em and I weren’t quite so ready to celebrate as we’d seen this kind of false dawn before and, sure enough, within 300m the road had returned to dirt. Still, it was a sign that perhaps the worst was behind us. We had a several more false dawns over the next few kms, but then suddenly we saw a road sign warning of a sharp bend (a bit late don’t you think?!) and then, as the road widened, catseyes.  We all knew that we’d made it when our track finally arrived at a junction with the main road. It was almost 8pm and we’d left the waterfalls, some 17km or so away, at half two, riding the last two hours in total darkness. It’s fair to say that we were ecstatic and, it must be said, a little relieved – roads like this may have become something more ‘normal’ for us, but never in our wildest dreams would we have planned on putting Darren (on his relaxing holiday!) through this! 

Having ascertained which way to go, we set off along perfect, empty, twisting, curving roads feeling the cool air that our new found speed threw in our faces. The signs said 60km to go but it could have said 6 or 600, it really didn’t matter, we were loving it. All too soon though, we arrived in the small pretty town of Mae Hong Son (a tad later than intended!…) and, riding round the back streets near the small lake, quickly found somewhere really cute to stay. After a lightning (but much needed) shower, we went out for a delicious meal at a restaurant on the waterfront where we each ordered a couple of large, and incredibly well deserved, cold beers; one to wolf down, the other to savour (Em: I think there may have been a few celebratory cocktails too!…) As is standard operating procedure for us, the day hadn’t gone according to plan but it had, ultimately, been a great day, and despite everything ,we all sat there with a sense of satisfaction at what we’d got through together.  And there can be little doubt that, as we sat there glass in hand, talking and laughing about the previous two days,  no one’s beer could have gone down more smoothly than Darren’s!

The next morning we awoke reasonably refreshed and, after a walk round the town’s lake, set about trying to find a Kawasaki dealer that might stock the necessary spare parts for us to fix the damage to Darren’s bike (and save his deposit!) following its fall by the Burmese border a few days before. However,  with nothing available, and with Darren’s body finally starting to pay the price for the last few days, we gave up and went for a leisurely breakfast; after all, it was our last day on the bikes, and as the crow flies, Chiang Mai wasn’t too far away. After breakfast, Em found a large map of the area hanging on a wall of a nearby tour operator and we located the Mae Surin falls (Em: the very name now eliciting a grrr and a shake of the fist) which indeed was reached by a ‘secondary road’. However, contrary to what was indicated on our road map, i.e. that the left turn out of the falls continued in the same manner, this enlarged, more detailed map showed that we had, in fact, gone from a pink line to an orange dashed one. A quick glance at the legend revealed this to be ‘4-wheel drive only, impassable in wet weather, caution; very steep.’ Oh, how we laughed….!!!

Today, with no direct route to Chiang Mai, we had two options: continue north in a loop that would take us into the twisty roads on the hills around the small town of Pai, or a slightly longer but faster southern loop. There was something of a communication breakdown on the way out – I was pretty sure I’d heard that Darren preferred the idea of the less ‘challenging’ southern loop on his last day (who could blame him?) whilst Em thought were going on the northern loop (her sense of direction still as bloodhound-esque as ever!) – and I led us off on the southern route. After 60km we passed the track that had ended our unplanned foray into the jungle the previous day, and a little while later passed the side road that led towards the waterfall, which the map suggested continued east towards link roads to Chiang Mai. The map also suggested that one small 10km section might be a little less maintained. The advantage of this little short cut was that it would save us about 100km on the day. Tempting it might have been, but not tempting enough for Darren who, still somewhat traumatised, said he wasn’t comfortable with only ‘might’ to rely on (Em: I wholly agreed and let’s face it, the map had screwed us somewhat the previous day!). As the least experienced rider, Darren’s word counted for more, so with the decision made, we continued on the longer southern loop; just how long we only found out a kilometre down the road when a sign suggested we were still 300km from Chiang Mai. This meant that we wouldn’t make it to Chiang Mai until after dark unless we pushed it, some thing, on such incredible roads, we had no intention of doing. (Em: again we waved goodbye to yet another easy day!)

It was just as well (for the child in me) that we did choose the southern loop as I finally got see another snake, maybe just 2 metres long this time, which whilst coming out of a bend, I narrowly avoided running over as it was crossing the road. With my usual childlike excitement at such things, I pulled over to the side of the road and, climbing off the bike, ran the 50 metres back down to where the slightly shocked snake had, for the moment at least, stopped in its tracks.  Em and Darren hadn’t, it would later turn out, actually seen it, but then it did look a lot like a stick and probably even more so once after I passed it making it all the more difficult to spot.  I ran passed them as they came to halt, shouting for them to grab a camera and follow me. The snake was starting to move again by the time I got there, so I positioned myself between it and the side of the road and did all in my power to keep it there. It kept moving, trying to find a way past me and I, in response, kept blocking it and stamping my feet as close to it as I dared so that Em and Darren could see it and give me my camera. Suddenly the snake reared up to knee height, its neck forming a hood. Ah, it was a cobra! With my adrenalin now flowing sufficiently, and continuing  to ‘dance’ with the snake, I called to Darren and Em to run quicker, but now that I knew what it was, I had no intention of turning my back on it to see what was taking them so long. I kept trying to keep the cobra in the road but with its more aggressive stance, couldn’t quite take so many liberties to keep it there. In the end I had to admit defeat (I really wanted a nice close-up photo of a cobra in its striking pose) and having watched it slither and disappear into the undergrowth at the side of the road, turned to question/berate the others, only to find Darren still on his bike and Em only just starting a leisurely stroll towards me. I won’t deny I was a little frustrated, having wanted them to  see it and having tried my best to keep it there for them but they were both quick to explain that firstly they hadn’t seen any snake and didn’t have a clue what I’d been on about as I’d run past them, which explained everything. I can’t even begin to imagine what they thought I was doing when I was ‘dancing’ to keep the snake in the road! Some things are better left unsaid…….

By evening, and after a fantastic day’s ride, we found ourselves on the main approach road to Chiang Mai and quickly made our way to our guesthouse. The riding section of Darren’s holiday was over but before handing the bike in the next day, we found a local Kawasaki dealer and, for a relative pittance, replaced the broken parts for Darren’s bike, before taking it for a jet wash the like of which would normally only be reserved for a motocross scrambler! With the bike looking like new(ish) we took it back to the dealer and Darren, relieved to see his hefty deposit returned, said a sad farewell to the bike. He had become quite attached to it, in no small part because it had made him feel so comfortable, had constantly put a big smile on his face and had endured, without any complaint or hesitation, more than it was ever designed to. On arriving back at our guesthouse Darren swore he was buying a bike when he got back home!….

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Expect the unexpected…

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

(Emily) I woke early in Mae Sot and crept downstairs to the comfy chairs on the veranda, taking advantage of the solitude to do some diary while the boys slept their beers off. It started raining in earnest around half past seven and it was still pouring (jungle stylee) when Darren emerged a few hours later, and when James woke up even later still. General reaction to the rain: oh, bugger! We were in two minds about what to do – no-one particularly wanted to go out in the wet, and we were especially wary on Darren’s behalf about having to ride on slick roads so early in his riding career, plus the idea of cosying up at the lovely guesthouse for one more day wasn’t without appeal. However, we only had a few riding days left and the online weather forecast suggested an unsettled outlook for the next 48 hours at least; who knew when decent weather would come again. Deliberating further over a hearty breakfast, we finally opted to stay put (hangovers might well have played their part in the decision making process…) but just as check out time had come and gone, it started to clear up – naturally! It made sense to take advantage of the dry spell – true, we didn’t know how long it would last but tomorrow could be even worse. It had actually grown really quite warm while we packed the bikes up so by the time we were on our way, the puddles were already evaporating and, for now at least, conditions weren’t too dangerous.

Riding north on the road that flanked the Thai border with Burma (separated by the Mae Nam Moi river), we’d only gone 40km or so when we started to pass some amazing traditional homes by the side of the road; basic huts made of wood but beautifully crafted, with the huge leaves common to a particular type of tree in the this part of the world used as thatching on the roofs. It was a great photo so we all stopped and Darren and I took it in turns being subjects in the foreground while James played around with his camera settings – why take one photo when you can take twenty?! (James: er, so you have lots of lovely photos of yourself?!!!…)  Their curiosity piqued, there were soon fifteen or so villagers gathered to watch us, smiling their shy hellos. I was having my turn in front of the camera when suddenly there was a cry of dismay and we turned to see that Darren, midway through some antics to amuse the children (he’s great with kids and turns into a big kid himself whenever they’re around), had lost his footing and both he and the bike were on the ground! I have to admit, I wasn’t too worried (and my apologies again, Darren, for not jumping to your aid straight away) – after all, how many times have we dropped the bikes now?! However, a certain concern did start to develop once we had the bike upright again and found it wouldn’t start… this was not good. Darren was busying kicking himself and saying goodbye to his rental deposit while James had a play around but it was no good – the gear lever wasn’t responding and the clutch seemed very loose, too loose. Crap. All the while, the villagers had been watching and one guy in particular, Nu-Nu, who spoke fantastic English asked if we might need a mechanic – apparently there might be someone available from the village further down the road. ‘Yes, please!’ It’s amazing that, no matter how remote your location from modern facilities, there always seems to be someone able, and more importantly, willing to help.

My bike was quicker to unload so we got the bags off and James disappeared off down the road with Nu-Nu riding pillion to find the mechanic. There wasn’t a lot for me and Darren to do – none of the other villagers spoke English and they were all staying behind the fence that separated their village from the road – so we tinkered about with the bike a bit more and, once we finally managed to get it into neutral, were actually able to start the engine. Result! Except it wasn’t really a significant achievement as the gears were still screwed – the worry being that the lever had in some way damaged the gear box when the bike had fallen.  Luckily the boys were back with the mechanic in no time at all and he set about having a fiddle with his rudimentary toolset. While James and the mechanic were doing their thing (largely involving whacking the gear lever with a spanner but, hey, whatever works…), we got chatting to Nu-Nu and were shocked to discover that the fence behind which the villagers were living was in fact a perimeter they were not permitted to cross; he and his family and friends were Burmese refugees who, having escaped the oppression of their country several years ago, found they were denied entry to Thailand and were, as a result, forced to live in what was essentially a no-man’s land, people without a state. We were horrified! And Nu-Nu, in addition to the fact that he was helping three strangers he didn’t know from Adam, was risking his life by simply being on Thai soil. It all started to fall into place: the cause for which the event had been held the previous evening, the barbed wire running along the top of the fence, the heavily armed police check-points we’d crossed every couple of kilometres on the road so far. The three of us felt completed humbled; not only by these people’s incredibly challenging situation while we lived with such freedom, but by the fact that they were going out of their way and risking so much to help us. The bike was soon running again but needless to say, neither Nu-Nu nor the mechanic would accept any money for their trouble – asking only that James return the mechanic to his part of the camp as soon as possible before his absence was discovered. I think it’s fair to say that Darren’s relief at having the bike road-worthy again was nothing compared with the emotion he felt at being treated so kindly by these strangers. And once again, the old adage had been proved correct: it’s not a disaster, it’s an opportunity. Who cared that there were some scratches to the bike and the clutch lever had snapped – Darren had had a touching and humbling experience that had really affected him, and that he would, no doubt, cherish for the rest of his life.

Still shaking our heads in wonder at the generosity of strangers, we cracked on. We only had about 200km ahead of us to the target night stop of Mae Sariang but we’d obviously lost some time with the mechanical problem and were keen not to ride in the dark if at all possible. The road was fantastic – mainly dry, with the heavy mist hanging along the top of the mountains only serving to enhance the whole environment. We turned off down a side track at one point, hoping to visit some caves that were marked on the map but, after negotiating our way down an extremely steep hill in the now drizzling rain, we discovered that going into the caves themselves would involve wading through knee deep water… er, no thanks! We satisfied ourselves with a few photos and went on our way again. The road continued to be great for most of the afternoon, dishing up bend after sweeping bend, but as we began to climb in altitude, the moisture in the air thickened and we were soon riding in the cloud. Now, this can be an awesome experience as long as visibility remains ok but seeing as we were in the middle of rain clouds rather than the usual misty kind, we were soon getting pretty damp and chilly and looking forward to making the decent. Hmmm, it would seem fate had a few more things to throw at us before that though! Towards the peak of the particular summit we were climbing, the road turned from super-smooth perfect tarmac to little more than an overgrown footpath. Not ideal when it’s wet and twisty… but certainly better than mud which is what we got next!! No sooner had we passed the tell-tale orange road work sign (always in Thai but essentially saying, ‘You’re screwed!’) than what little road surface we’d had disappeared entirely to be replaced with red mud where the road had been churned up for widening. Not great at the best of times but in the wet – pretty much my worst nightmare! Bringing up the rear, I could see Darren’s back wheel swinging out all over the place (he was on a road bike so had even less traction from his tyres than us, not to mention less experience) and I have to admit, I was thinking it was a case of when rather than if he would come off (likewise for myself!) However, he coped extremely well and managed to follow James through the quagmire without incident. Bravo!

It was all rather surreal to have gone from such a brilliant surface to all this crap, and we even passed a working elephant at one point right by the roadside (normally something that would have us grabbing for our cameras but to use the brakes on this stuff would have been a big mistake!) After an anxiety-filled few kilometres, we finally hit proper tarmac again, albeit narrow, and Darren and I tried our best to keep up with James who was taking no prisoners at the front (James: my overall concern now being to ensure that, having lost time in the road works, we would be in Mae Sariang by nightfall. Rain, muddy roads AND dark was not something I intended on putting Darren through!) By the time we had descended to lower altitude and hit the lovely wide sweeping roads again, it was getting dark, we were cold, our fingers were numb and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast but now it was just a case of eating up the last few miles as quickly as possible. I can’t express how relieved we were to reach the outskirts of Mae Sariang and I shouted through the wind to James (riding with visor up as it was impossible to see through the rain splatter) that we were stopping at the first accommodation we saw!! He knew better than to mess with a cold, dishevelled wife so pulled into the first guesthouse as directed and we parked our bikes up together out front – a rather sorry looking bunch, particularly Darren’s once shiny black bike, now covered in splattered mud. It turned out to be a bit of a hole but never mind that, it was clean, dry and had hot water! It’s amazing what standing under a hot shower can do to revive the spirits and over a fantastic meal at a local restaurant, we reflected on the day’s events and laughed at how a slightly shell-shocked but elated Darren had certainly not bargained for a day like this when he signed up for the trip! Still, we were safe in the knowledge that tomorrow was a short, easy day of just 150km to Mae Hong Son, before heading back to Chiang Mai and returning his bike. What could possibly go wrong?…..

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Go West!

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

(James) With all of our official legal obligations now met, we were all up fairly early so that we, and more importantly, Darren could finally begin riding for the sheer fun of it and not to actually get somewhere. Our plan was to retrace the route we’d ridden days earlier back along the Mekong river to get to Nong Khai, albeit at a more leisurely pace, before heading south towards the small town of Loei, and then west towards Thailand’s western frontier where we’d be able to run north along the lesser used roads  by the Burmese border. Although we were still keen to get some good mileage under our belts so we could maximise Darren’s riding time, it felt good to suddenly be riding once again without a target or deadline and we were able to stop in for photos at temples and other points of interest along the way. Our early start combined with a fast empty road meant that we had reached Loei by early afternoon, so we stopped in for lunch at a roadside café that had a one dish menu. Normally, this lack of choice might be a problem, but fortunately this being Thailand it really doesn’t matter as you’re pretty much guaranteed that whatever you’re given, it’ll be delicious, and today was no exception (the fact that with drinks we only paid the equivalent of less than a pound each always makes things taste that little bit sweeter!). Although we were so stuffed that all we really wanted to do was go and have a nap, we set off after lunch in anticipation of 200km of almost continuous bends on the road to Lom Sak and, just as before, we had an absolute blast.

The only lowlight of the day came later in the afternoon  when, having finally reached the main road heading west, I had a run in with the local fauna. Anyone who’s ridden a motorcycle will know that sometimes when on a straight road like a motorway, your eyes instinctively focus on an insect (normally a wasp or a bee in Europe)that’s flying along directly in your path. It might be 100 metres ahead but for whatever reason you just lock on to it. Even if you’re a new rider, the reason is abundantly obvious – it’s going to hit you square in the face. There’s nothing you can do about it, and changing lanes won’t help, it’s just one of those things. Well, my eyes had focused in on said insect, in this case a particularly large butterfly (the big butterflies here have a tendency to not only hurt you through the high speed impact of their bodies in your face but add insult to injury when their abnormally large wings then slap you in the face too!), and I was bracing myself for the inevitable. Bizarrely though, I wasn’t the only one who had noticed this particular flying insect. Unbeknown to me, and outside of my peripheral vision, a hunting bird had locked onto what would surely be a meal big enough to satisfy it for several days to come and was positioning itself (in from the direction of the sun incidentally) for an attack. So, as this particularly impressive butterfly was flying along minding its own business and, perhaps, one might imagine, congratulating itself on how spectacularly large and attractive it had become, it could hardly be blamed for failing to notice not one, but two larger (but no less attractive, ahem..) predators, one intentionally, the other not so much, honing in on it. The question, and one that all three (totally unaware) parties involved could not possibly know the answer to, was which two participants’ paths would intercept and who would continue on their way unharmed. As fate would have it, the answer was all three and none. In what was something of a photo finish, the bird reached the blissfully unaware insect milliseconds before me, earning itself a pretty decent meal in the process. It counted for nought though as, in the instant after its victory and whilst it was probably just about to give itself some sort of avarian high-five, and certainly before it could have even had a chance to swallow its prey, the supremely unaware and ironically, the winner of this particular race collided, at full tilt, with me, or more specifically with my neck, proving once and for all that in the natural scheme of things, the victor doesn’t always reap the spoils – there’s always a bigger fish. Either way, it was a shock for me (one can only imagine the shock for the other two protagonists!) as said bird had a significantly bigger impact than the insect I had braced myself for. Suffice to say it bloody hurt, and I dealt with the resulting pain in a typically manly fashion (picture quivering lower lip, moist eyes and child-like snotty nose ) by calling on some of the not so inconsiderable range of expletives in my repertoire and then pulling over to the side of the road to ensure that bird and butterfly weren’t in my jacket (fortunately they weren’t) and to check for any sign of blood or injury much like any professional footballer but, as is normally the case with footballers, there was nothing there!…

With evening rapidly drawing in we found ourselves back near Khao Kho and so stopped in to see if we could stay with the same lady we’d stayed with before but sadly, and despite having only been open for about 5 days (you might recall that we were her first guests) she was full. We were naturally disappointed but she seemed borderline suicidal, even offering to let us stay in her house (for an even higher price) to make up for it! We declined and having said goodbye, found somewhere else to stay nearby, where we had an early night, but not before enduring an hour of comedy, when we went to a fairly large capacity restaurant, where as the only customers we spent 20 minutes trying to get across that we wanted to eat, something that bizarrely, the owners really struggled to comprehend (still, it offered an explanation as to why it had no customers!) The following morning were up early one again to bash out the miles that would put us near the Burmese border, or at least Darren was; we’d forgotten to set our alarms! Still, a quick turn-around saw us up and ready in 10 minutes, which would have been great  but for error number two of the morning – Darren had moved his bike without removing the padlock that was acting as a disc lock (to prevent someone riding off on it). The lock had somehow managed to wedge itself between the fork leg and the brake calliper and was not going to be moved with brute force. Riding off with a disc lock still on is something that most new motorcyclists do at some point and is normally very embarrassing and very expensive to fix, so it was a relief that Darren had learnt this lesson whilst just wheeling the bike around in a quiet location. In the end we had to get the tool kit out and remove the calliper before the lock freed itself, and luckily there was no damage to the bike so we could finally get on our way, but not before we stopped at a bizarrely out of place and kooky, yet undeniably cool American-style roadside café. The café was just metres from traditional thatched roofed Thai huts set on bamboo stilts, yet strangely,  neither  seemed particularly incongruous, working in harmony with each other; indeed, Em remarked that ‘harmonious’ might be the word that describes Thailand and Thai people better than any other. Being a western style café it actually offered western style breakfasts (something that, after 8 months on the road, we really miss) so we found some seats sitting on a veranda overlooking beautiful rolling hills and ordered food over proper mugs of tea and coffee. Our plates, when they arrived, had us in stitches. The dishes were just as described (fried eggs, sausages etc) but on a scale we’d never really seen before. Anyway, we enjoyed what may well have been a fried chaffinch egg and a matching Lilliputian sausage and on still empty stomachs, hit the road.

It might not appear so on the map but route 12, which runs east to west from Lom Sok to Mae Sot, is a series of frustratingly boring long straights, frustrating mostly because the countryside around us wasn’t that flat. Still, looking at the positives, boring as it was, we were making excellent progress. Our boredom was only broken by our first sighting of a big snake, or rather a big ex-snake. As we were riding along I had to take evasive action to avoid a large python in the middle of the lane. It must have been at least three metres long and was really thick, thick enough that had one of us hit we’d have known all about it. It had obviously only just been hit as it had just one tyre track through the middle of its length. I watched  in my mirrors to see that Em and Darren also dodged it and was relieved to see that they did. I slowed down to allow Em to draw up alongside me where we remarked on the size of the snake and she advised me against pulling over to go and take a photo (Em: we were on a three lane highway!), but when Darren pulled up alongside and I went to congratulate him on missing such an obstacle, his reply was ‘what snake?’ Apparently  he hadn’t  actually seen the enormous reptile taking up 90% of our lane! I wasn’t sure whether I should just be thankful that he was so totally focused on the road, or be worried that he’d failed to see such a huge obstacle. Darren just seemed gutted to have missed it (though I suspect he thought I was having him on!)

By mid-afternoon we had reached the junction where our road met with route 1, the main north-south road in Thailand. For us, this marked the point where our day of straight roads ended and we would enter the hilly country that marks the Thai-Burmese border, and with hills comes nice twisty roads! As the hills closed in on us, so too did the clouds which, with every passing kilometre, began to look more menacing. Given the deteriorating weather we decided to keep pushing on and, just as the first drops of rain began to fall, we rolled into the frontier town of Mae Sot. We really lucked out with accommodation, finding a beautiful teak guesthouse, and after a shower we sat together in big comfy chairs under an awning catching up on our admin and drinking tea as the rain finally carried out what it had been threatening to do throughout the afternoon. We were the only tourists staying at our guesthouse but that’s not to say it was empty. The remaining rooms were taken up an eclectic mix of NGO workers and volunteers who it turned out worked with Burmese refugees or on Burmese human rights issues. Chatting with some of them, we were invited out to a charity event they were holding at a bar in the town and so, with our jobs done (or almost done in the case of our blog – we were starting to fall behind at this point!) we went to the event, which it turned out was to raise awareness of those Burmese refugees who, having managed to escape from what, I think we can all agree, is a pretty horrific and hard to defend regime in Burma, were now not being recognised as refugees by the Thai government. Quite how anybody can question the validity of someone trying to escape from Burma is beyond me and it must be to the shame of the Thai government that Mae Sot is seen by those Burmese who now call it home as the largest prison camp in the world because, given that they are not recognised by the Thai government, and given that they clearly are now not recognised by the Burmese government, they find themselves in a sort of international stasis where they are people without a country or any (bar the local NGO’s) representation. There was a live band playing and plenty of beers so we all had a great, if a little sobering, evening (how can you not when you meet a man who was a political prisoner in Burma for over twenty years?!) before one at a time, deciding to call it a night and head back through the rain to our guesthouse. Darren, those of you who know him won’t be surprised to hear, was the last home……..

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Honorary Motoventurer in at the deep end!

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

(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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Putting the extra mile in…

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

(James) We were keen to get away early the next morning (our overly ambitious thinking being that we might get down to Pattaya whilst Darren was enjoying a lie in), but inevitably various distractions, such as photo sessions with the hostel staff for their website (ah, the life of the Thai z-list celebrity!!) meant that it was 11am by the time we got on the road. Bangkok’s sheer size meant that it was just going to be a case of heading southeast through the city until we saw signposts we recognised. Our progress through the city wasn’t exactly rapid despite Bangkok’s 21st century infrastructure. We’d already marvelled at the integrated transport system here (we don’t get out much!) which makes any other city we’ve ever been to look antiquated. The city has a developed system of water taxis that wind their way at speed through Bangkok’s maze of waterways, and underground runs a clean and efficient underground metro system, but it’s what’s above ground that is so impressive. The same road system of elevated multiple lane highways that had so amazed us upon our arrival continues throughout the city, and that includes the very centre. So as you walk down the main streets of downtown Bangkok, there is often a series of pillars running down the centre of the road that supports the city’s ‘sky train’ rail system (the best way to get around the centre of the city) and above that might be another sky train line (if it’s a junction), an actual high speed train line, or a four lane express road. This utterly brilliant system means that any major road in the city can have 4 different forms of transport running along its axis on 4 different levels, none of which get in each other’s way. This is the way an integrated transport system is supposed to work, and the result is that despite the sheer size of the city, the streets are fairly calm (you hear nothing from the multiple lane roads running overhead), it’s quick, simple and cheap to get about, and the only smell to hit your nose is that of delicious Thai food being cooked at any one of the countless street food stalls – western cities, take note! (Em: You can only imagine how many times I had to hear James rhapsodising about the ‘integrated transport network’ so be thankful to only get the geek-fest once!)

Anyway, I digress… My point is that we expected to make great progress out of the city and estimated that just two hours might be a feasible arrival time in Pattaya if the traffic gods smiled on us. Of course, they didn’t and we found that one man-made problem prevented a quick escape. Once out of the centre, the city has numerous 4 lane (in each direction) highways interlinking with each other. Above these run elevated multi-lane toll expressways, and to the side run dual carriageways. We knew that motorcycles weren’t allowed on the toll roads but had been assured that we could use the fast ground-level highways below. Not so, it turned out and we were relegated to the side roads which were made all the more lethal by the fact that people would pull up to a stop in the inside lane, and the outside(fast) lane was also the exit lane for those coming off the highway! Not ideal, and more than once we found ourselves diving onto the highway to avoid the carnage and put a couple of easy but slightly illegal kilometres under our belt. Eventually we were out though, and once in the open countryside (where the rules always seem to be more lax) we sat on the highway and, boring as it was, devoured the distance to Pattaya as quickly as we could arriving at about 2pm, expecting to find an excited Darren either waiting to show us a hire bike he’d found or sitting on one he’d already hired (he’s quite impulsive!!)

What we actually found was a fairly depressed Darren sitting on a bench on a fairly depressing beach promenade. He wasn’t the bringer of good news, and over a cold drink we sat and listened incredulously as he told us that he’d been to dozens of the bike places that lined the sea front and at each had been told that he could hire any of the big capacity bikes with one condition – they weren’t allowed out of the city limits!…. We could barely believe what we were hearing, I mean, what’s the point of hiring a one litre touring motorcycle that can’t actually tour! Apparently they don’t allow people to leave the city as if a customer breaks down, they might have to drive all the way to collect the bikes! We were stunned and even checked ourselves, assuring an shop owner that if we had a problem we’d sort it our ourselves so that either way he’d be getting his bike back just as it was before  – but he wasn’t having any of it. Our promise of not needing breakdown/accident support  should have been enough but it wasn’t. The reason, we guessed, was that the dealers simply didn’t need to take the risk as Pattaya has been completely taken over by  the new breed of wealthy Russians. These Russians, as we quickly saw, like to throw their money about (nouveau riche darling!) and were happy to pay significant sums to hire a racing spec superbike or a fully equipped Harley -Davidson and just pootle up and down the tacky promenade in first gear. Either way, it was all a bit pathetic and we quickly decided that the best thing was to get out of there and head north to Chiang Mai in the north where we knew there would be plenty of bikes  to rent for touring. (Em: this was all very frustrating as we could have just gone there from Bangkok in the first place instead of having this farcical trip south to Pattaya. We also had to break it to Darren that it looked like we would have to work a visa-run trip to Laos into our itinerary… Darren’s potential time on a bike was rapidly diminishing!) Darren booked himself a bus back to Bangkok and a flight (being the flash git he is!) north to Chiang Mai and we agreed to meet him there in two days time. I mention this, because at some point (and I don’t know when) we all decided that Chiang Mai was about 600km to the north so Em and I based our two day rendez-vous on this distance.

Anyway, not so early the next morning we said goodbye to Darren and headed off, fully expecting to cover about 300km (to the half way point) in good time and, just as expected, our progress was excellent. Such great progress in the morning meant we were ahead of schedule – the downside being that, contrary to our usual habit, we’d had to keep going whenever we’d seen things of interest along the way. We consoled ourselves with a good hour long stop at a really cute roadside restaurant where we ate several beautiful dishes (Em: banana blossom salad, yum!), whilst fish for other diners was being taken straight from the pond next to our table. All was going really well so in the afternoon we decided to come off the boring fast roads and get back on to the more interesting rural roads where we’re much happier. This was also a chance for us to get our first glimpse of the kind of riding we could expect in Thailand – and, certainly going on first impressions, we agreed that Thailand was going to continue to impress. Throughout our trip we’d witnessed a fairly steady decline in driving standards (great for both of us, but particularly Em as it meant we were never going to get thrown in at the deep end) that had culminated, you won’t be surprised to hear, in India. Nepal had provided a marked improvement, but Thailand was another level and we spent the afternoon riding through beautiful countryside on smooth roads with minimal traffic, traffic which, when we came across it, was considerate and predictable. Perhaps our standards and expectations have dropped but in our experience this was better than we remembered riding at home to be like! We also came across our first working elephants as we had to stop to allow an elephant and its calf being guided across the road by a mahout, presumably heading home after a hard day’s work!

With dusk approaching we pulled over for a break, somewhere near Chai Baden, and agreed we’d better start looking for somewhere to stay. We were a tad concerned as, to our knowledge, we hadn’t passed a single hotel all day and we’d left it a bit late to start looking (normally we know what time it starts getting dark and when to start thinking about stopping for the day but this being our first proper day on the road in Thailand we were a bit clueless). Having got back on the bike we pulled back onto the road but had barely got into second gear when we passed the entrance to complex we’d inadvertently been stopped next to. It  looked suspiciously hotel-like, so we popped in and true enough it was. However, it looked pretty smart, and thus, would clearly be out of our price range. Still, at least they might know of somewhere nearby. They did know indeed,  and agreeing that they were more expensive, began giving us directions. Out of interest we asked what their double room cost and when the answer came back we dropped our bags without looking at each other and began filling in the registration book. 400 Baht (less than £8!) for a, quite frankly, luxurious room!

You might recall I mentioned earlier that we’d somehow assumed that it was a 600km trip from Pattaya to Chiang Mai. Assumption is something we never ordinarily do (it being the mother of all f***-ups) but on this occasion, and for whatever reason, we did. And we were about to pay the price for it. We were chatting away with the ever friendly Thai staff at reception whilst filling out our registration forms and talking about what we were doing (it seems they don’t get too many foreigners passing through on bikes!), explaining that we were trying to get up to Chiang Mai to meet our friend. One asked how long it would take us to get to there and when  we replied that we hoped to get there the following evening they looked concerned and suggested that perhaps we might get there the day after that but not before. When we asked what they meant, they told us it was 1000km to Chiang Mai! (Rather than the 300km we thought we had left!) Now, we’re used to hearing people trying to be helpful and giving us woefully inaccurate directions but still, when someone gives you a figure that’s so utterly different to that you expect you can’t help but at least sit up and take notice. Still, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about it other than worry about potentially making Darren spend another of his precious riding days not actually riding. (Em: we had already wasted at least three days with the Pattaya palaver…)

The following morning we were up and ready to hit the road early just in case we had indeed got the distances wrong (a quick look at the map suggested that it might be just a bit further than the expected 300km but without knowing how twisty the roads might be, it was still up for conjecture). We hadn’t gone 4km when a passing car beeped at me and indicated that my rear tyre was low and, having pulled over, a quick inspection revealed a nail embedded deeply into the tread. After more than 25,000km of often dreadful ‘roads’ without incident, I finally had our first puncture of the trip! Before leaving Bangkok we’d made the decision to leave those bags deemed unnecessary (those carrying sleeping bags and roll mats) in storage at the hostel so I’d be able to carry Darren’s luggage and save him carrying extra weight. We’d forgotten that we’d been storing our spare inner tubes in the bottom of our camping bag so, sods law, not only had we had a our first puncture of the trip, but we’d had it on the only occasion that we hadn’t been carrying a spare tube or repair kit!! There  was little we could do but re-inflate the tyre and see what effect the ‘slime’ (a puncture prevention goo we inserted in our tyres before leaving the UK which had so far performed faultlessly) would have in slowing the leak; after all who knows how long I’d had the nail in my tyre? We sent a text message to Darren asking him to bring the inner tube with him from Bangkok (as he was flying, he wasn’t leaving until later that morning) and got back on the road, trying to make up for the time we’d lost at the side of the road while Em kept an eye on my tyre. (Em: turns out Darren didn’t get my text until after he’d arrived in Chiang Mai… whoops!)

We rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent pounding out as many kilometres as we could just in case we were indeed looking at a much bigger distance than we’d assumed. Confirmation came at lunch when we got chatting with a local policeman who wanted photos of us and the bikes and he told us that we were still about 400km away from Chiang Mai  - not ideal given we’d already covered 250km! (our normal daily limit). It’s fair to say that our lunch stop was considerably shorter after hearing the news and, not being able to bear the idea of keeping Darren waiting around on his own for yet another night, we agreed that we’d keep going regardless of how late it got. One way or another we were getting to Chiang Mai today!

We continued to keep up a fairly ruthless pace only stopping for fuel or when Em occasionally started to fall asleep (Em’s ability to fall asleep on the back of my bike used to be unnerving enough, but on long motorway runs she still manages to do it which scares the life out of me!) With evening approaching, we were still over 100km away from Chiang Mai when a drink stop revealed that the tyre had deflated itself by about 50% so, having donned our headtorches, we set about re-inflating the tyre and got back on the road. The slime in our tyres had proven great on our trip to date; it works by instantly filling any hole in our inner tube and, having plugged the hole, solidifying to prevent further air escaping. It works well until the hole causing the puncture reaches a certain size. With the slime having kept the tyre inflated all day, our hopes were high as rode off once again into the night but, like a teenager having sex, it didn’t  last long and some 30km later I felt the tell tale signs of a deflating rear tyre. A quick inspection in the dark revealed ejected slime sprayed all over the underside of the bike –  we’d lost as much air in the last 30km as we had throughout the rest of the day. Clearly the hole in the inner tube had become a tear, and it was now just a case of re-inflating and hoping for the best. With the tyre pumped up once more, we set off again with Em stationed close behind me to monitor the situation. 25km later and just 30km short of Chiang Mai, we had to pull over yet again and repeat the procedure whilst Em stood waving a torch about to alert passing cars and trucks of our presence at the side of the road. Heading off this time, we hoped we might be able to limp into Chiang Mai but it wasn’t to be and 15km later we found ourselves sitting at the side of the road once more. That, fortunately, turned out to be our last stop (as if our day hadn’t been long enough, each tyre stop had cost us at least 20 minutes) and we finally staggered out of the rural darkness and into the bright lights of Chiang Mai. Having quickly found the central moat around the centre of town, we located our hostel where we saw a relaxed Darren sat, cold beer in hand (bastard!),waiting for us. We unloaded the bikes, had a lightning shower (always easy to do when the water’s freezing!) and went straight out for dinner and a much needed drink where we toasted (me with a beer, Darren and Em were on some pretty girly cocktails!)(Em: er, I think you’ll find there’s photo evidence to the contrary…) the end of a long day and the start of Darren’s riding holiday. We’d ridden more than 650km in a day, stopped for maintenance to a puncture five times and, just as the locals had told us, covered 1000km from Pattaya to Chiang Mai. Surely we’d sleep like babies!…..