25 Days of Heaven Part 2
In my previous submission I described the first leg of my motorcycle trip of a lifetime which took me all around the country and covered more than 5000 kilometers, from my departure point on the Island of Phuket to the capital, via Koh Samui. I resume the tale after I had spent a few days recuperating in Bangkok.
I would very much like to thank the readers who took the time to email me their appreciation for my work. Your enjoyment is what motivates me to write, and do I have a few other stories to tell. I also want to wish all readers a happy new year.
25 Days of Heaven (part II: Bangkok to Chiang Mai)
Leaving Bangkok is in no way an easy task, and is one best approached with some preparation. The first step of course was plotting a course on Google, and memorizing the major landmarks along the route. Street names are not of much use in my experience, the signs are very hard to spot in all the chaos and since I can’t pronounce the names properly in Thai anyways forget asking for directions. Getting directions from Thai men is an uncertain endeavor at best, and based on my own experiences can be quite comical.
So after carefully covering my mouth and nose with a mask and retrieving the bike from the parking lot I headed out towards Don Meuang airport, the place where I first set foot in the kingdom back in 2003. The signs were fairly easy to follow and after missing only a few turns I got there in no time at all, without inhaling too much pollution either. Just past the airport I turned onto the road toward Ayutthaya, and after a short time I decided to try my luck in the express lanes as making my way along the local traffic on the service road was painstakingly slow. My intrepidness was immediately rewarded with nice cruising speeds and I thought to myself that soon Bangkok traffic and pollution would be a distant memory, as would the oppressive heat the further north I rode. Things were already awesome, I was going on the ride of a lifetime after all, and they were now looking up!
I spotted the man in brown only a few minutes after merging onto the express lanes , the elated optimism I had been feeling a moment before quickly faded and I went in to a very Thai “disaster mitigation” mode. I have some experience dealing with cops in many places in the world and have had many more positive encounters than bad ones, the bad ones usually being of my own making. Except riot police, those guys can be downright ruthless in any country. Wearing standard knee high boots and a tight brown uniform, the highway patrolman was standing next to his special “Tiger-Boxer” police bike and waving me down. I quickly complied, parked, removed my helmet and produced an appropriately respectful wai. His English was limited but after plainly telling me that I couldn’t drive there with my motorbike he asked for my license. I handed him my driver’s license which is written in French. He made a show of reading it but I already knew the moment I handed it over that he had no idea what was written on it and I suspect he did not want to lose face by bringing me in to the station only to find out that I was in order… When he asked me where I was going, I replied “Chiang Rai” which amused him immensely for some reason. He began to try and converse with me but his combination of very broken English, Thai and sign language was more confusing than anything else. At this moment I began to divert attention away from my transgression towards his bike, and complimented him on it whipping out my camera to snap a few shots. The huge grin of beaming pride on his face as I framed him and his bike was all the confirmation I needed to know that I would not be getting a ticket or paying a bribe on this day.
Reluctantly I returned to the service road, which I followed all the way to Ayutthaya, and after a total of about 2 hours I was finally out of Bangkok and into the provinces. At first I followed the main highway, legally now, into Sara Buri towards Nakhon Rachasima, but after having made good time for most of the morning, I turned off the main road and headed north towards a medium sized town named Chaiyaphum, wanting to avoid any larger urban centers for a while. However even in the countryside there is not much to mention here as far as scenery goes, it’s a mostly agricultural area and so is characterized by an endless succession of farms, agricultural factories and small to medium sized villages with the occasional Wat. Road conditions were great, just like most places I have been in the country, but traffic speeds were kept low, as would be the norm for the next few weeks, by slow moving vehicles. However the low speeds suited me well at this point. It is in this area that I first started to encounter a type of vehicle seemingly native to Isaan, at least as far as I know.
Usually heavily loaded with various crops and regularly losing parts of its payload all over the road, these noisy belt driven contraptions have the engine sitting out in plain view and no exhaust system I could see. They are invariably very colorful with intricate patterns painted on every surface not covered in chrome, and multiple tassels and flower garlands hang from them as well. Quite a nuisance to the flow of traffic however, as long lines of cars get stuck behind them, and they tend to plod along in the bike lane, still obstructing about half of the road, making them dangerous to pass on either side. In order to get by them I would have to pass several cars using the bike lane and then swerve out to the right as I came up to the noisy contraption. I came to dread the sight of them.
As the sun began to set I pulled in to Chaiyaphum, marking the end of my longest day in the saddle so far. I had made really good time since Bangkok but was now facing a whole new set of challenges. Most people around here don’t speak English, at all. My phrasebook and Thai dictionary were all but useless. I had no map of the city, no internet access, and there were no directions in English to get anywhere in town. I was on the outskirts looking for the city centre where I assumed I could find a room but the layout of the streets did not suggest any obvious direction. I soon spotted a few men enjoying a drink outside a 7-11, so I pulled in to the parking and got off the bike. After about 6 hours on the road there was no way I was going to ride around in circles looking for a hotel. I needed help. I first walked into the store and bought a few cold beers then went back out to sit at the table next to the group of men. They had reacted predictably to the big bike and were suitably impressed by the Phuket plates, a rarity north of Bangkok it seems, so I felt good in starting to try to establish a conversation. First I produced a large can of Singha that I handed over to the guys which they gladly accepted and passed around. Next I pulled one out for myself, cracked it open and proceeded to down it in one swig, to the immense delight of all w To this day they probably still recount the story to disbelieving locals of the time the giant farang came on his giant bike and drank a big beer in one swig like it was a shooter.
Using sign language, after much gesturing around I was able to convey to them that I needed a place to rest, so one of them motioned to wait for a short moment and took off on his bike. He returned soon after with a friend riding pillion who apparently knew where to find rooms, or just happened to need a ride. They clearly wanted me to follow them and in the few seconds it took me to get back on the trusty transalp, the whole group had decided to get on their bikes and escort me through town. I was led downtown past the area where a sizeable Red Cross fair was taking place, and into the parking lot of a fairly swanky looking hotel. After many thanks and some wais I left my new friends to go find a room. The hotel was beyond my budget and fully booked anyways, but staff kindly provided me with a town map showing all the hotels and I was able to find a cheap room nearby for under 300 baht. There was a well-protected parking lot so I felt safe leaving the bike, and after a much needed shower I headed into the town center to the fair seeking the inevitable food court area.
Isaan food is famous, or infamous, in Thailand among foreigners and Thai people alike, so I was looking forward to what I would find at the fair. While fairground food is notorious for being greasy in north-America, all of the dishes I sampled in Chaiyaphum tended to be on the sweet side, even the soup. Most dishes were still relatively spicy, but the sweetness was prevalent. Other than the food there was all sorts of attractions like elephants, live music shows, arts and crafts displays and of course lots of shopping. I found a pair of very lightly tinted sunglasses for wearing in lower light conditions to keep bugs out of my eyes for the exorbitant price of 50 baht, and I still use them to this day. Best sunglasses I have ever owned. I watched girls with heavily painted faces perform some kind of traditional dance, they were quite charming. It was a very interesting glimpse into everyday Thai culture that is not aimed at tourists. It was also very interesting to note that many things I observed in Chaiyaphum and the Isaan area reminded of my own small-town farming area origins. It struck me that the differences between country and city folk were somewhat universal. Then I noticed the bugs and all sense of familiarity quickly disintegrated.
You can call them delicacies as much as you want; I refuse to even try these things on the grounds that upon eating them my reaction will surely cause loss of face to the vendor, or someone. How very altruistic of me. While the food I found was not on par with what I had been used to in the south and Bangkok, one thing Chaiyaphum had was the best looking Tuk-Tuks I had ever seen. These guys put the crooks in Phuket and their 4 wheeled red death traps to shame with their attitude alone, never mind how cool their bikes looked.
With a very long day behind me and a few beers under my belt, it was time to cut short my wanderings around town and retire to my room in order to plan the next day’s travel. I decided to visit Tat Tone national park as my map showed it to be just outside of town, and then head on to Udon Thani. I rose early, wolfed down what passed for breakfast at a nearby resort, and headed off to see some waterfalls. The park turned out to be a bit farther from town than I had anticipated, but I when finally got there I quickly conceded that it had been worth the detour. The landscape was getting more and more hilly, and the road to the park was probably the prettiest stretch I had encountered since leaving the jungles of Phang Na. After paying more to get in to the park than my hotel room had cost thanks to Thailand’s infamous double pricing policy at national parks, I found a completely deserted parking lot being so early on a weekday. Feeling a little uneasy about leaving my bike and all the gear strapped to it, I nevertheless set off into the park to see the falls. The whole site is quite beautiful, and the main falls offer some interesting swimming opportunities which I did not take advantage of because it was not warm enough to entice me. Spending more than a month on Phuket will make 24 degrees feel chilly apparently.
I met two guys who were eating some takeout on the rocks at the foot of the falls. They offered me some of their food and we struck up a conversation of sorts; once again they seemed very interested in whether or not I had a Thai girlfriend, and solemnly nodded their approval when I told them I didn’t. Leaving my newfound friends behind, I took a short hike around the falls to snap a few more pictures, and was once again struck by the amount of litter strewn about. No matter how many times I encountered this it never failed to make me sad, especially in a beautiful natural setting such as this. Walking back towards the parking area I was lost in my thoughts about education, poverty, self-esteem and respect for the environment. Suddenly I felt a small tense wire pulling across my face, and I froze. Tentatively I took a step back, then another, and the tense line left my cheeks. Another step back and I was able to make out a huge spider web woven across the trail. It felt more like very light test fishing wire when I had touched it and none of the web had broken despite my walking right into it… Wow I thought to myself, what kind of spider could have made that? Slowly, I looked up and saw it right above my head; it was a rather large specimen. I’ve seen larger bodied spiders, but this guy’s leg span was maybe 20-25 cm.
Nephila Pilipes is one of the largest spiders in the world I would later learn, and a spectacular creature no doubt. Itching to get back to my bike and gear, I quickly made my way back down the trail, mounted up and rode off towards Udon Thani. First I returned to Chaiyaphum to get back onto the main road towards Khon Kaen, and then swung northeast towards a small town called Chong Sam Mo where I stopped for lunch. I ate some of the best and spiciest massaman I ever tasted, stocked up on water and rode on. The next village I drove through was spotless, no litter anywhere to be seen, flower pots in the median and on almost every house front. I began to suspect that the further north I got, the less litter I would see as the “evil” influence of foreigners had yet to pervert the inhabitants of Isaan. Five minutes or so down the road I was disillusioned abruptly as the next village was business as usual in the cleanliness department. Thailand: Land of contrasts.
Khon Kaen is a big town and so is Udon Thani, the “capital of the northeast”, these places held little interest for me, so I drove right through Khon Kaen and spent very little time visiting Udon Thani. A city of that size requires more time than I had to get to know it, and driving my bike around town was not what I had signed up for anyways. So I resume my narrative a few days later as I drove up to the Friendship Bridge spanning the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos. Ever since I saw Apocalypse Now, the Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece and John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon, I have been fascinated by this part of the world and its rivers, first among them the mighty Mekong. As a history and geography buff I have always been fascinated by the way civilisations developed along major waterways like the Tigris and Euphrates in ancient Mesopotamia, the Nile in Africa, the Amazon in South America and even more recently the Mississippi and St-Lawrence rivers in North America. I get a very keen sense of being in a historical place; much more so than in man-made landmarks. I had been looking forward my first glimpse of the river, and I was not disappointed.
I turned west and followed the southern bank of the river through small towns nestled between the waterfront and mountains, a nice slow twisty road that was to be the first of many such enjoyable rides in the north. I spent the whole morning leisurely following the river from Nong Khai to Chiang Khan, admiring striking river scenes to the right, lush vegetation on my left. Being within eyesight of Laos, I started to realize at this point how far I was from Phuket, now almost 2 weeks behind me. Instead of worrying though, having gotten this far without any mishaps allowed me to let go of the fear of failing to accomplish my goal of making it all the way around Thailand and truly embrace the freedom of being on the road by myself. No set itinerary, no fixed schedule and no one to tell me where to go or when to stop. Just hours upon hours of curves ahead of me as the bike nimbly slalomed its way along the riverfront. I’ve never felt more elated in all my travels. “This truly is a glorious adventure!” I kept telling myself. I stopped for some fish at lunch time in Chiang Khan and looked at the map. I had not been making very good time and I realized I could spend the better part of a week making my way to Chiang Rai this way if I stuck to the river. An appealing notion but one that would likely prevent me from completing the Mae Hong Son loop, so I decided to try to get to Chiang Mai the next day by turning inland.
It was with great regret that after lunch I left the meandering Mekong with its spectacular vistas behind me and turned south towards Loei, and then west again past Nong Bua and Dan Sai. After leaving Loei I truly entered Thailand’s north, in terms of landscape. The mountains became noticeably larger and forests covered most of the valleys as well, not as many farms to be found except in the larger valleys compared to further east in Isaan. The riding was once again spectacular. High quality tarmac, very little traffic and all the breathtaking scenery you can handle in the few seconds of straight road you get to look around before plunging into the next curve. I rode till the sun went down and then began to keep an eye out for accommodations, until I came to a small resort just outside Nakhon Thai. It had begun to get chilly (yes chilly, in Thailand!) and I was exhausted after a several long hours in the saddle, so after getting directions from a local shop owner (in typical Thai fashion she escorted me over) I was very grateful to find this place literally in the middle of nowhere. I was the only guest staying there that night and accordingly I got first-rate service. The food was excellent and the beer cold, providing the perfect conclusion to a perfect day of riding. Afterwards I slept the deep satisfying carefree sleep of the weary traveller, and I can only imagine the devilish ear to ear grin on my face all night. You see, a happy biker only smiles in his sleep, because while on the road he wears his riding face, which can best be described as a look of manic concentration, a strange contortion of facial muscles designed to avoid swallowing bugs or letting too much wind up his nose. Motorcycle riders’ faces can often be quite hilarious.
On the 13th day I woke up stiff but refreshed and with no signs of being saddle sore. Apparently my backside was now broken in. I stopped in town for some breakfast and started off on another extraordinary 7 hour day of riding, the first part of which was every bit as spectacular as the day before, but the last 3 hours or so into Chiang Mai were nothing to write home about. That of course was the result of my choice to get there faster, because every time I looked at my map, the road along the Mekong beckoned to me with its flowery villages and endless curves. But even without a fixed schedule, I did have some goals. And a time limit on the rental contract of course. Trivial real life concerns like these kept creeping in to my dreamlike state of total riding freedom even though I did my best to ignore them. Three of these goals remained to be achieved, and so I stayed away from the Mekong, for now, as I knew I would see it again later. And so I made my way to Lampang via Pa Daeng along a slightly tortuous road, maintaining a good pace once I reached the highway allowing me to cruise into Chiang Mai in the late afternoon, and check myself into the Prince hotel, which had very secure parking and decent room rates, a nice pool and very central location for exploring the city centre on foot.
(In my next installment, I will cover the portion of my trip which saw me touring Chiang Mai and the North.)