Archive for December, 2010

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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Visa run to Vientiane

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

(Emily) The border crossing from Thailand into Laos was eeeeeea-sy! It only took about 15 minutes to exit Thailand (bear in mind the average we’ve experienced at border posts so far is about three and a half hours, with some taking five or six!) Getting into Laos took a bit longer, but most of that was queuing up to apply for a visa with all the other travellers. We did have a bit of a wait at customs after that so Darren went on ahead of us to find the guesthouse we’d booked in Vientiane, sharing a taxi with a couple of girls he’d been on the bus with, while we got the bike paperwork sorted. Eventually someone ‘official’ enough was found to stamp our carnets but we got the distinct impression no-one really knew what they were doing! It was strange to be riding on the right hand side of the road again for the first time since China but although it took a bit of getting used to, it was nice for me to finally be able to use my mirror again when overtaking (I broke my right one in the accident in Istanbul and have never got round to getting a replacement…) When we got to Vientiane – the small capital – we knew roughly where we were going but got caught on a one-way system. By weird coincidence though, when we pulled in to look at the map we saw the two girls from Hong Kong who Darren had shared a taxi with! They’d just dropped him off at our hotel so were able to tell us exactly where it was. Then, even bigger coincidence: while we getting our bikes unpacked outside the guesthouse, who should walk by but Fabian!!?!! Mad or what?! We hadn’t even known he was in the area but turns out, he was in Vientiane to get a longer Thai visa just like us.

So, with the added bonus of now having the Fabster with us, we went for a little wander, taking in a cool ancient temple, a shopping centre (?!) and a bustling market filled with lots of new and interesting produce we hadn’t seen before, most notably entire stalls dedicated to different deep-fried insects! From what we could tell, there were many similarities between Thailand and the almost ‘cosmopolitan’ Vientiane, such as the vibrant street food scene, monks clad in the ubiquitous yellow-orange robes and countless scooters zipping through the streets, but it also seemed much more reserved; people weren’t unfriendly as such, just less likely to smile and engage in conversation with a stranger. The country is still under communist rule and you are certainly left in no doubt about it; hammer and sickle flags flutter in every street and from every building (James: This determination to maintain a sense of ‘perpetual revolution’, i.e. keeping a sense of revolution when the revolutionaries have been the establishment for over 30 years, becomes something of a joke when you see a not so cheap but very gaudy American Hummer 4×4 parked next to one of the countless propaganda posters!) However, the French influence (Laos was once part of French Indochina) still pervades and the streets are filled with old French colonial buildings, quaint squares surrounded by cafes that wouldn’t look out of place in any provincial French village and shops selling baguettes! Numbers aside, tourism seems to have had less of an impact in the capital than it has in Thailand. It’s illegal for foreigners to have ‘relations’ with Laotian girls unless they are married so it was quite refreshing not to see the classic ‘fat old white man, childlike local girl’ combo which had been so prevalent in Bangkok and pretty much par for the course in Pattaya.

In the evening we found a fantastic restaurant, called Makphet, just around the corner from our hotel which works towards offering a sustainable existence to street-children by training them up as waiting staff and chefs so they can go on to work in hotels and restaurants around the country,(a bit like Jamie Oliver’s ‘15’). To date they have trained and provided skills to over 1400 street kids. They served up western/Laos fusion food at budget prices and practically every main dish could be ordered as a full or half portion; a great idea as it meant we could try even more (highly necessary when everything on the menu had us salivating)! The chicken, pumpkin and mushroom curry certainly went down a treat, as did the beef marinated in whiskey! (As you commented, Joanna, our schedule seems to lean heavily towards eating and drinking. It’s a hard life!)

The following morning we were up early doors to go and submit our visa application at the Thai embassy. James, particularly, didn’t appreciate the 7am wake up call as he’d hardly slept – we were quickly learning that he and Darren weren’t the most compatible of roomies! Many a ‘discussion’ had already been had over aircon: James hates it and it gives him a sore throat by the morning whereas Darren can’t sleep without it. Then there was Darren’s snoring and sleep-talking to contend with!! We decided that perhaps it would be prudent to get separate rooms from now on in order to keep everyone happy! Anyway, we left Darren sleeping and walked to the Thai consulate with Fabian, a forty-five minute journey in the end (about half an hour longer than anticipated!), not helped by missing the turning for the road we wanted (not many road signs here!). Hungry for some breakfast, we stopped in at a café that was offering free visa application forms but unfortunately, once we got into the consulate, we discovered they were the wrong ones, doh! The place was absolutely heaving – Vientiane is one of the most popular visa run towns being so close to the border – and we were somewhat dismayed to be allocated queue number 437 from the automated ticket machine (the display was currently showing 109!) Good thing we had our books with us as it was two hours before our number came up! And then we had to queue again to get a receipt for when we returned to pick them up the following day… ah, you’ve gotta love visa offices, everything is always so well thought through. By the time we got back to the hotel (after walking again – gluttons for punishment but the tuk-tuks were quoting too much), Darren was despairing as, after all we’d been gone five hours!

After a tasty, noodle-based lunch we bartered with a tuk-tuk for a good price to get us to Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, 25km or so out of the city. We’d seen a photo of the place on a postcard the previous day and it looked like a pretty unique spot. Conjured up by a shaman in the fifties, it basically comprises dozens of stone and concrete sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities; Xieng Khuan itself means ‘Spirit City’. Even though it’s a relatively modern construction, the whole park had a really ancient feel and it’s fair to say we all absolutely loved the place! It’s one of our favourite sights on the whole trip for its sheer eccentricity and Dali-esque surrealism, and of course the photo opportunities were more than enough to keep James and Fabian happy! We read in one of the guidebooks that it’s a favourite with children… what can I say?!

The following day, Darren headed off early to get back across the border by bus while we explored some local temples and markets with Fabian before getting to the consulate in time for the afternoon visa collection slot. As we’d half expected, the queue wound all the way down the street already but it was so hot out in the full sun we’d definitely made the right decision to join the masses only once the embassy opened. It took a good couple of hours to get our hands back on our passports, now complete with Thai visa sticker, but, after saying goodbye (until next time) to Fabian who was staying in the country to ride into southern Laos and then on to Cambodia, we made it back to the border for about half past three. I stayed with the bikes while James went off to find someone who could sign our carnet. He was absolutely ages and it turns out that, after struggling to find the ‘Carnet guy’, he’d had to go pillion on someone’s moped to the customs house on the road back towards the Buddha Park to find this one guy who knew what to do, only to find he wasn’t there either! In the end, James had to teach one of the staff (James: the Customs chief it turned out!) how complete our log books and sign our bikes out of the country! It is scary the amount of time wasted at borders due to officials not having a clue what they’re doing! In the meantime, I’d got chatting to a group of four Malaysian bikers who were doing a tour of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Lovely guys, and strangely, our second set of Malaysian bikers met at a border – we’d come across another four in no-mans land between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (James: It seems we only bump into Malaysian bikers and overlanders when in no-man’s land, that they are always in groups of four and always ride sponsored Kawasakis!) Fortunately, this time the border guards were nowhere near as ‘sensitive’ as in central Asia so we were able to take photos and swap contact details. We certainly won’t be stuck for somewhere to stay when we get to Kuala Lumpur, especially as our sister-in-law, Jo, has family in Malaysia too!

It was only once we’d got to the Thai side and had produced our passports for inspection that James realised he’d only been issued a single-entry visa as opposed to the double entry we’d asked for (and I’d got.) B*****ks! An easy mistake to make; we’d checked them both back at the embassy, mine first. On seeing the ‘2’ written in mine, it was easy to read the ‘s’ for single as a ‘2’ in James’. It was really annoying. Not the end of the world as it got us back into Thailand fine this time and James would always be able to apply for another visa when we got to Laos to do it ‘properly’ after Darren had gone, but a pain and a rather stupid rookie mistake on our part. There was also a bit of a wobbly moment when customs only gave us 30 days on our bike papers (remember that the whole point of the visa run was to get a 60 day visa that meant we could leave our bikes in Thailand while visiting Vietnam…) I was about to have a bit of a meltdown – not least because all this time out of Darren’s riding holiday would have been for nothing – but James (hero that he is) talked them round to giving the bikes 60 days to match our visa. Phew!!! With that, we rode across the friendship bridge that spans the Mekong river back into Nong Khai and Thailand under the setting sun to catch up with Darren. He was on fine form, having been out for a little jaunt on his bike and sampling the guesthouse’s delicious home-made chocolate cake so we had a beer and breathed a collective sigh of relief. Now all the set-backs were out of the way, we could finally relax and Darren could enjoy his last few days on the bike without incident….

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!…..

Bangkok rocks!

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

(Emily) Our second day in Bangkok found us eagerly awaiting our good friend Darren’s arrival. Back in the UK, Darren was at a loose end with six weeks off work after prior plans had fallen through so we’d said something to the effect of, ‘Get your arse out here!’ His flight wasn’t getting in until late afternoon so we spent the morning at the hostel catching up on admin, the lion’s share of our time being taken up writing a letter to the solicitor who’s dealing with my accident in Istanbul (we’re still nowhere close to getting any compensation…) We took the metro to the airport and arrived about five minutes after Darren’s flight had landed – perfect timing – so took up position by the arrivals gate to wait. We amused ourselves by guessing the nationalities of the hoards of arriving tourists, trying to spot the obvious English. None seemed to be forthcoming just yet so we resorted to taking bets on silly things like what colour shirt Darren would be wearing, or whether he’d come through the right or the left door. As fun as our little time-killing games were, we did eventually become more than a little impatient when time and again, the doors opened to reveal a distinctly non-British stream of people. It didn’t help that the electronic board above arrivals wasn’t working so we didn’t have any status updates. Eventually, I went to ask someone if there had been some sort of delay only to be told that there were two arrivals gates and that, in all likelihood given the time, Darren had probably come through some time ago at the other exit, just 100m metres away!!! Doh!! (James: I mean, seriously, who builds a brand new international terminal and then has two separate, but unannounced arrival areas?!!) We felt terrible, especially as we hadn’t actually confirmed that we’d be coming to the airport to meet him – Darren must have thought we were right gits not showing up! Luckily, he’d actually been the one to book the accommodation in Bangkok so at least he knew where he was going…

When we got back to Lub-d, we were relieved to spy Darren, beer in hand, having made it safely on his own and, luckily, he was smiling! He laughed at how we’d gone on about the hostel in an email the day before – he agreed that it was a cool place but I think our level of rhapsodising indicated a sense of wonder akin to just be released from prison! After taking Darren to get some street food where we’d eaten the night before, we went out to a local bar to catch up properly and ended up rather over-doing it on cocktails, oops – our first night with Darren and already we were drinking more than we would normally in a whole month!! At least we didn’t having anything challenging on the agenda for the next day. The main thing was to get our bikes in for a proper dealer service, having not had one since Istanbul (about 14,000km ago!) We’d looked into possible places on the internet (a bit tricky when many of the sites are in Thai only) and asked around on overland traveller websites and in the end went for a Yamaha dealer in the central Bangkok – the guy sounded nice on the phone and, more importantly, spoke English! We got on our bikes and followed Darren in a taxi (though I think James knew the way better after looking at the map just once – the taxi drivers in Bangkok are generally lovely and the meter is cheap but they never have any idea of where anything is!!) Once we neared the place, a local on a moped spotted us on our bikes and, guessing where we must be going, indicated for us to follow him down a side street behind a huge shopping mall where, sure enough, there was a big, shiny new Yamaha service centre. Yet another example of the friendliness of Thai people. It was a relief to leave our bikes somewhere so professional and, although there wasn’t really anything obviously ‘wrong’ with them (aside from my leaking fork seal which, having to wait to Darren to bring the parts from the UK, we’d been studiously ignoring for two months now…), it would give us peace of mind for them to have an overhaul of new oil, brake fluid etc.

The Yamaha guys also advised on bike hire for Darren, or rather told us that we should look in Pattaya, about 120km to the south east, instead of Bangkok as the town was a bit of a bike hub and, for one reason or another, there weren’t really any places in the capital that rented out to tourists. It was a shame not to be able to get Darren on a bike straight away but in many ways it was a better option as it meant he wouldn’t have to ride in the city (he’d got his licence years before but never got round to having a bike so experience on the road at this point was pretty much zero – doing your first day in one of the busiest cities in the world would be a pretty tall order!) We spent some time that afternoon devising a rough plan which comprised of a few days sight-seeing in Bangkok while we waited for our bikes to be ready, a quick nip down to Pattaya (us riding, Darren on the bus) to get Darren a rental bike, then riding up north to Chiang Mai and the surrounding areas which were, by all accounts, biking nirvana. That would give us a couple of weeks on the bikes before coming back south to go sailing in Phuket with my parents, then flying on to Vietnam on Christmas Day where we would spend the remainder of Darren’s holiday. Not a bad itinerary, I’m sure you’ll agree!

After a few easy days with little to do but plan the coming weeks whilst Darren acclimatised and got over his jetlag, we spent a day seeing the sights in Bangkok with Lee-ann, a lovely girl from Yorkshire who Darren had met on his flight and was staying at the same hostel as us. We took the ‘river express’, a hop-on-hop-off boat service that runs up and down the river all day which gave us a chance to view the cityscape from the water. There were many traditional looking long-tail boats that had been fitted with turbo engines and were hurtling up and down the river at great speed – there was something very ‘James Bond’ about them that the boys loved! We had our own entertainment though, in the form of the guide on our boat – an absolute comedy act and as camp as Christmas!! He was so funny it was tempting to stay on the boat all day just to listen to him, but we forced ourselves to get off at pier nine which gave access to most of the main temples. We went to Wat Arun first, meaning ‘Temple of the Dawn’, which was a tall, steep structure decorated, rather interestingly, with crockery incorporated into the stone work. The steps up to the top were somewhat precipitous to the extent that some of the visiting tourists were breaking into a bit of a sweat! On the other side of the river, we visited Wat Pho, home of the famous (James: and bloody huge!) gold reclining Buddha and then made our way to Wat Phra Kaeo, which included a cool mini replica of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. At the Grand Palace we nearly got caught out by a bit of a scam when an official looking guy with a badge told us that it was closed for lunch and to come back in an hour. Meanwhile, he suggested that we get one of the awaiting tuk-tuks for a short tour of the area. We didn’t want to get a tuk-tuk but we were starting to talk about going for somewhere for something to eat when I remembered reading somewhere that con artists will tell you somewhere is closed in order to drum up business for themselves, a practice we also recalled from India. Sure enough, when we carried on walking along the palace walls we discovered the main entrance where, of course, everything was open. Grrr, scamming gits! The palace was impressive but it was quite expensive and it’s fair to say we were getting a bit templed out by this point (cultural cretins that we are) so we wandered back to the river and got some cheap food at the market before boarding the (absolutely rammed) boat back.

That evening the four of us went out to Koh San Road, the infamous backpacker hangout. It was quite funny to see the bars brazenly advertising ‘we don’t check ID!’  and conversely, the street touts offering any fake ID you could think of – ever wanted to pretend you were a journalist, student or even a policeman? On the whole though, it was a pretty uninspiring place, full of ‘far out dudes’ and old guys with their little Thai girlfriends. After a bit of t-shirt shopping (Darren are you really ever going to wear the Mr Jihad Mr Men one you bought?!!!) we did find a cute street hung with lanterns where we got a decent curry and more than a few pina coladas. Walking back to our hostel that night we had a quick wander round Patpong market (inviting the inevitable ‘Ping Pong, mister?’) before indulging in, not a late night kebab but… a late night massage!! Massage parlours of the legitimate kind can be found every hundred yards (and I’m sure there are more than enough dodgy ones in the back streets too) where you can get an hour long treatment for about 250 baht (£5). Lee-ann and I opted for a foot massage while James and Darren went for the head and shoulders option (they had to fight it out over who got the female masseuse, ha ha!) It was bliss and far better than a kebab!

The following evening we had another great night out. Remember the British biker, Andrew, we’d met in Nepal? He’d told us that Simon and Lisa Thomas, a biking couple who are somewhat infamous in overland circles for being seven years (yes, you read that right!) into a round the world trip, had arrived in Thailand a few days before us. He evidently  told them about us too as when we got to Bangkok, we received an email from them saying hello and did we want to meet up for a drink or two. We got a taxi over to their hotel on the outskirts of town where they had their own private little bungalow overlooking a koi carp lake – a bit flash for overlanders but it turns out they were staying there courtesy of Touratech Thailand! To give a bit of background, Simon and Lisa left the UK in 2003 after selling their business and pretty much everything else they owned and have since been travelling  the world on their motorbikes. I assumed that in such a long time frame they must have gone round the globe several times over but no, they are just doing it once but very, very thoroughly! During their epic trip, they’ve obviously built up quite a following and have also generated a fair bit of sponsorship (such as Touratech, a well-known motorcycle equipment company, who alongside BMW are one of their main sponsors) which has allowed them to stay on the road for so long. We were really interested to meet them and swap anecdotes and war stories about our different experiences. That evening, we were also joined by Peera, the owner-director of Touratech Thailand, and some of his friends so it made for a big group round the table and plenty of chatter, helped along nicely by the two bottles of very expensive single malt scotch that Peera produced! (He also provided tons of food at his expense, what a generous guy!) Simon and Lisa were great fun and indeed amazed and inspired us with some of their stories (er, such as Simon breaking his neck in a fall in South America and not reaching medical treatment until three weeks later!!!) and Peera was absolute quality, a real one off and a pleasure to get to know. The three of us agreed, having finally managed to get a taxi at 2am, that it had been a brilliant night.

On the day that we were leaving for Pattaya, we got up early doors in order to apply for our Vietnam visas as soon as the embassy opened – it was so easy, and they didn’t ask to keep the passports! With that done, Darren left to catch his bus; we, on the other hand, were going to be leaving a bit later and meeting him in Pattaya in the evening as we had to go to immigration to get our visa extension (see previous entry for why). From what we’d read on the internet, it was a fairly standard procedure so we had no worries that we’d be able to get that sorted quickly, head over to Yamaha to pick up our bikes and then be on our way to Pattaya before dark. Hmmm. Immigration was about an hour away, based at the site of the old airport, but the taxi only cost a couple of quid (imagine that in England!) The building was, as with so many things we were finding in Bangkok, an incredibly efficient and sensible use of space – all the government departments were located within the one huge mall-type building, with a mass of shops and cafes on the bottom floor to serve all the employees (this may not sound particularly impressive, but our experience of immigration offices and embassies so far tended to be shacks in the middle of nowhere!) We found the relevant office, filled in the application and took a seat to wait for our queue number to come up (again, a sense of order which we’d never seen before!) Handing it in at about half eleven, we were pleased to be ahead of schedule. ‘You need a visa extension? That’s fine,’ said the smiley helpful woman behind the desk. ‘That’s 1900 baht for seven days.’ ‘No, no, we need 30 days – see here (pointing to form), 30 days.’ ‘But you can only have seven days,’ smile, smile. ‘Say what?!’ And it turns out that, as holders of a ‘visa exemption’ rather than an actual ‘tourist’ visa, all we were entitled to was one more week. This was bad, very bad. It was fine for us: we would be leaving for Vietnam before our time was up and then could get a new visa on arrival when we returned. It was the bikes that were the problem. They needed to remain in Thailand while we were in Vietnam as we weren’t permitted to take them into the country. However, even with the extension, their ‘visa’ would run out while we were away and we were all too aware of the document we’d signed acknowledging a hefty fine – around £2000 each – if we were to exceed the export date. Crap. Well, we were currently sitting in the Thai Immigration office, so surely, if we explained our situation, there was something they could do. Her suggestion? ‘You must apply for a proper tourist visa, which you can then extend for 30 days’ (smile, smile). ‘Ok, can we do that here?’ ‘No, you must go to a Thai embassy in another country.’ WHAT?!!!!! Seriously? (James: We tried to reason with them that surely the consul at an embassy was just an agent of their department but apparently not….) I have to say at this point it was all getting a bit much and emotions were running high. Yes, we’ve had visa issues before (the debacle that was Uzbekistan being top of the list) but now there was much more at stake – namely, Darren’s precious holiday time. ‘Oh, sorry Darren, I know the plan was to ride around northern Thailand for two weeks but it turns out we just have to ‘pop over’ to Laos to get a visa…’ James could see that I was about to crumble so he took control and reminded me of our travel mantra – ‘It’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity.’ There didn’t seem to be much for it but to accept what they said and head back into town. Gutted.

It was now gone 4pm due to combination of the immigration department breaking for a lunch hour half way through our negotiations, and us phoning up customs from the office several times to see if they could help resolve this blatant lack of co-ordination between two government departments (James: they couldn’t). By the time the taxi arrived back at the hostel it was clear that we wouldn’t be getting to Pattaya that evening so we booked into Lub-d for another night and emailed Darren to say sorry but we wouldn’t be there until the following day. Hopefully, it would give him enough time to get a rental bike sorted and we could all hit the road together as soon as we arrived. We decided to wait and tell him about the unscheduled trip to Laos in person! All that remained was to pick our bikes up from the Yamaha centre so that we were ready for a quick departure the following morning. After a comedy/hair-raising taxi ride with a completely psychotic driver (James: he would see how hard and late he could break on purpose and then laugh hysterically at how close a shave we’d just had!), we arrived to find the bikes waiting for us out front. They looked great and, an added bonus, they’d managed to find me a new front tyre which we’d asked for but hadn’t really expected. Another unexpected surprise was that there was a film crew there waiting to interview us!!! They wanted to do a piece on us in association with Yamaha Thailand about our trip and why we’d chosen the XTs. Apparently it would be shown on a Thai sports channel as well as the company’s website and on Thailand’s most popular website. Awesome! We probably came across as complete berks as we had no time to prepare and well, we are a bit dorky at the best of times, but it was good fun and made us a feel a little bit famous just for a moment! As soon as we get our hands on the clip, we’ll post it up – so far, no luck but we’ll be revisiting them when we’re back in Bangkok. Our long day meant that for the second time, we were riding in the city in the dark. All good though, and James even managed to take a few action shots when we slowed down in the traffic! I did a mean bit of filtering too – it had to be done as the alternative was to melt in the heat or choke to death from exhaust fumes – but I may have knocked a few people’s wing mirrors along the way, oops! Needless to say, we were shattered when we got back and welcomed an early night. Come the morning we would finally get on our way to Patt-eye-YA, as the locals calls it, and the biking part of Darren’s holiday could begin…