Around the world with The Bear – Part Six
The King of Every Kingdom – Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
Last issue The Bear made the journey from Malaysia into Thailand, which wasn’t without it’s mishaps included a motorcycle crash and broken shoulder blade. Now the trip continues in Thailand.
You know how people are always saying, “You should have been in Bali (or wherever) back in the day”? Well, you should have been in Patong.
Hangovers abating, we rode through country like a Chinese woodcut with giant, almost unbelievably steep limestone outcrops flanking the road. Entertainment at our lunch stop was a couple of local lads trying to teach us how to pronounce Phangnga. You try it!
They were agog when we lit our pipes. The Governor of the province, it seemed, smoked a pipe, so no one else did—the neighbours might think they were getting above themselves. We had another beer in the Governor’s honour and then the lights went out—just a power failure, not a sign of official disfavour. Well, I guess.
The next day we rode on to the ‘Holiday Paradise’ of Phuket Island, where we got directions for Patong Beach, the alleged hippy hangout, and rode out along an atrocious dirt track for a few miles. Right at the end was Patong Beach; we knew it was that because there was an enormous neon sign saying ‘Patong Beach Hotel’.
The hotel was inhabited by Germans on package tours, but we checked in at the rather more modest Palmgarten and invaded the bar pavilion to sample some more Mekong—some people never learn—and watch the first squalls of the monsoon bending the leaves of the palms.
This is a somewhat melancholy occupation, but in a good way. A few days of it convinced us that we’d better move on or be rained in, so we said goodbye to Sai Jai, the Thai lady in charge, and her assistants.
Charlie had become rather, shall we say, friendly with one of these ladies and left her an esoteric Australian T-shirt. Both of us felt better for the rest and made an impressive 573km to Thap Sakae on our first day. On my bicycle tour, I had inadvertently spent a night in a brothel here, which had turned out to be a good hotel as well. I couldn’t find it again, so we settled for another lovely old timber hotel, all the wood lovingly oiled and spotless.
By the time we got to Bangkok, I had something else besides my shoulder to worry about—sunstroke. How do you get sunstroke while wearing a crash helmet? By exposing the base of your neck to the sun in the space below your helmet, that’s how.
I had been wearing only a singlet on top and the vicious sun had cooked my spinal fluid. It sounds worse than it was, actually; I just felt deathly ill for a few days and couldn’t keep any food down. One way to lose weight. After I recovered, Charlie picked up a case of Bangkok belly. Another way to lose weight.
The city itself was, and I imagine still is, slowly disintegrating. Roads and footpaths were crumbling, the klongs or canals were stinking cesspits and as for the power lines… there was a bit of a thunderstorm when we arrived, and some of the power lines were being blown together by the wind and were fusing, spitting sparks across the road and writhing in the air as they melted.
Most street corners have their tangle of old, discarded wires aloft, ends waving in the breeze. Who knows which ones are live? We booked into the pleasantly third worldly Sri Hualampong Hotel at the main railway station and our bikes once more found a home in the lobby, the desk clerk lovingly spreading newspapers under them.
While I was getting over the sunstroke, I lay in bed and listened to the frequent rainstorms drumming on the tin roof of the factory next door. I also drank gallons of the fresh tea that comes with the room.
Once recovered, I sat downstairs in the lobby restaurant drinking beer and making occasional forays out into the city. Strange as it may sound, Bangkok is a stimulating, fascinating place even though it is falling apart or perhaps because it is….
The only thing that really makes it possible to live in Bangkok is the fact that it’s inhabited by Thais. No one else could possibly be so stubborn and yet so gentle and relaxed in the insane traffic. No one else would be cool enough to survive. My hat goes off to the lot of them.
Not being Thais, we were quite glad to be taking the road out and heading north to Chiang Mai. Within the first 30km we counted four buses that had dived into the rice paddies by the side of the road. One of the locals with whom we discussed Thai road safety – by pointing and shaking an open hand – indicated to us that that was life. Or not, of course. Mai pen rai.
After that, as we turned off to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, traffic eased up a little. So did the rain. Ayutthaya is worth visiting for its more or less well-preserved temples and Buddhas, monuments to the lavish devoutness of Thailand’s Buddhist rulers. But don’t buy the soft drinks.
Being located at a major tourist stop, the refreshment stand charges up to ten times the prices common elsewhere…
For some reason I developed a craving for a tomato sandwich on black bread during our ride on to Tak. Thai tomatoes are weedy, weevil-eaten woody midgets and Thai bread is dry, sweet and indescribably awful. So that was one impossible dream.
Our hotel in Tak was another of those marvelous all-timber buildings, the wood hand-polished and lacquered; probably a dreadful fire risk, but so lovely. We reached Chiang Mai the next day after dodging in and out of the clouds along the mountain road between Thoen and Li.
Like most Thai roads this one was quite well surfaced and twisted enough to make for interesting riding. It was also lined with forests of dripping, ghostly mountain bamboo.
I’d love to know why they put direction signs so far past intersections in Thailand. Why not right at the crossroads? This way, you never know if you’ve taken the wrong turn until you’re a hundred yards past the fork, where you have to turn around and try your chances on another track, and go through the same thing again. It’s like a game. Hey ferang, you think you’re so smart?
Our base in Chieng Mai was the Chumpon Guest House, a spotless building with a common room, a garage and constantly available iced water. They did our washing for us, too. We found ourselves a tailor in town and ordered polyester safari suits with long sleeves. You think this is weird? It is not.
I have this theory that you get better treatment at borders when you dress up, so we were taking advantage of the cheap tailors. A couple of days passed pleasantly with visits to the working elephants, who unlike the ones in ‘ elephant refuges’ in Malaysia seemed pretty well off and content, the waterfalls and the endless ‘antique’ shops that dot the town.
I bought a Buddha’s head which, I was assured, was a genuine antique. When I expressed concern about being allowed to take a genuine antique out of the country, the salesman assured me that it wasn’t that kind of genuine.
A reminder of a few years earlier when I was shopping in Chicken Street in Kabul and overheard a salesman insisting that “Of course it is a genuine antique! I made it myself!”
The night after we picked up our suits, we went on a spree. This mainly involved having dinner at the Chalet, a ritzy French restaurant. We felt we deserved it, and what’s the good of new clothes if you can’t show them off?
Dinner was a huge success with pepper steak and steak Dijonnaise set off beautifully by a ’73 Medoc. It cost a fortune, but we felt like kings when we walked out. This sort of thing is highly recommended on any bike trip. Get out there and live it up every now and then, and a tent in the rain will be all the more acceptable for it.
I sent my mother a buffalo leather cutout figure from a shadow puppet play. The Australian Customs opened it, I later discovered. I wonder what they thought I was sending my saintly old mum from Thailand?
On the way back down to Bangkok we visited another ancient capital, Sukothai—Thailand is lousy with ancient capitals—which was pretty, with the ruins all laid out in a grassy park that rather reminded me of Khajuraho in India.
At the entrance, a policeman showed a rather unhealthy interest in the contents of my camera case. I fought off his increasingly stern demands to let him dig through it and was greatly relieved when we got away.
At this stage, apart from my spark plug burning out and being replaced and a slight oil leak around the head gasket on Charlie’s bike, we had had no mechanical problems. That wonderful state continued, too.
But while the bikes did their job well, our riders didn’t always… read about it next installment….