Friday, February 26, 2010

Taxi ride to Phnom Penh and Day One

Arrived Phnom Penh the day before yesterday at around 2:30 pm after a four hour ride from Koh Kong where we had spent the previous night. Koh Kong is just inside of Cambodia and is a sleepy little river town. Because of the river and the fact that our hotel fronted on the main street with the river just beyond, a pleasant and steady breeze played across our third floor deck. After our steamy border crossing the breeze was especially welcome. The street vendors were out trying to sell food but there was very little traffic other than locals, most of that on motos.

Map of our first taxi ride of about 345 km (214 miles). Click on photo for a larger image.

View from our hotel deck

View from our hotel deck


I hadn't thought we would break the trip up into two days but seeing as we got to the Cambodian border at around 4:30 we decided we might as well hang out close by instead of attempting a night run through the hill country of Cambodia.

The first day of the trip was pretty cool. Our cabbie, coincidentally named Udon, was a good guy and drove with reasonable speed the whole way. We asked him if he knew of a good place to eat along the road. He didn't know of anything off the top of his head so he called his dispatcher. "Just up the road on the right side", came the answer. It was a great place to stop. Of a size to handle busloads of tourists, it was empty when we got there at about 12:30. It had a collection of three fish in a large aquarium. Here is a picture of Udon with the fish in the tank. He asked the proprietors what kind of fish they were and reported to us that they come from the Amazon River. (Note March 16: The fish is probably a pirarucu, considered by many experts to be endangered, considered by many of the same to be the world’s largest freshwater fish.) Appropriately sized I reckon.


The border crossing was the most uncomfortable part of the trip because it was deadly hot and muggy. We filled out forms and paid the fees, about $10 each, to grease the ways while I proceeded to create dark patches of sweat through my shirt. As if to make matters worse, we left our sunglasses on a counter for a few minutes and had them stolen. Albert was incensed and when cabbies approached us to solicit a ride into town, he drove them off with angry reprisals. I, in my role of novice traveler of course, would never have said anything about the cheap glasses and would simply have gone on without making a fuss. But he told me later that things have changed here and he wanted them to think twice before doing something like that again to a tourist.

We eventually got a ride into town for something like $6 USD. Oh yes, they drive on the right in Cambodia and use riels or USD as currency. Right now 1 USD = about 4200 riels. The cab driver spoke English fairly well so Albie set up our ride next day into Phnom Penh for $50 total. But before we could shake hands on it Albert pointed to the old Camry and says, "That's a very old car. We might have to find a driver with a newer car." He replied, "No problem. My brother has new car. Tomorrow he come for you." Before the fellow could make his escape, Albert admonished him with this warning, "No horn blowing tomorrow. Have brother call me at 9:30 or so to make sure we're ready for the 10 am pickup." Albert hates it when drivers use the horn constantly. I tell him they do it to alert moto drivers, whose machines are quite noisy, that they are being overtaken. He was unmoved by my argument.

We checked in to our hotel and sat out on the deck with a couple of cold beers while we discussed the usual things: the next day's travel, the cost of things here vs Thailand or the States, friends back home, and where to eat. After sundown we wandered into the downtown area for supper. While the riverfront park had a few dim streetlights, here there were none at all. Most of the bars and restaurants were lit inside but there was no neon and precious little light anywhere else outdoors. To an American who lives in a world of bright ambient light this town felt very strange as we walked along its dark sidewalks and dimly lit vendors' stalls on our way back to the hotel.

Taxi from Koh Kong to Phnom Penh (Click to enlarge)

Next day our taxi showed up promptly at 10 am with a different driver in a different Camry, newer than the last, but only slightly so. We tossed our bags in and off we went. The road out of Koh Kong is not well traveled and is a bit rough in spots but we rode along at about 50-60 mph. About an hour and a half into the ride we decided to pull over to a row of roadside shops to get some food. After lunch I spotted a beautiful little girl playing with a crab on a leash. How will her life turn out? I wondered as I took these photos:





Albert bought a couple of snacks (above) when he paid his bill. They were little packets made from a piece of banana leaf which contained a deliciously sweet ball of sticky rice inside of which was a banana or cooked plantain. I thought I might have detected a touch of vanilla but it was probably my imagination. Lovely little treats they were.

We saw many overloaded vehicles on the highways. The one below isn't particularly overloaded in Albert's opinion.


We arrived at our hotel, the Superstar Guesthouse on Street 172, right in the heart of Phnom Penh, at about 2:30.  At $12 a night ($15 for A/C) these rooms are slightly more expensive than our Thailand ones but the family that owns the hotel is very nice and Nora, the husband, speaks good English. I was able to rent a small moto from him, a 100 cc Honda Dream, for only $4 a day without having to surrender my passport as security, the usual requirement, which was important because I needed to be able leave my passport at the Thai Embassy for three days while they processed my application for a tourist visa (allowing me an extra 60 days stay in Thailand). Albert owns an electric moto which the owners let him store in the hotel when he's in the states so his ride was waiting for him already.

After a refreshing shower we drove the motos a short distance to a sidewalk cafe on Sisowath Quay, the riverfront road and a beehive of frenetic activity. Our restaurant, Happy Phnom Penh Pizza, another of Albert's favorites, serves Angkor beer on tap (60 cents a glass) and a wide selection of good foods for between $1 and $4 USD. You can even get a so-called Happy Pizza here which is apparently made with marijuana. If I decide to eat a pizza, I'll report back on that. Situated directly in front of the restaurant is the junction of the mighty Mekong with the Sap and Bassac rivers. Seeing the Mekong again makes me think I'd like to experience one of the many boat trips available for 15 or 20 bucks. This is a pretty fine place to eat except for the constant flow of beggars and scammers trying to part you from your money. I have a hard time saying no but the more time you spend here the more you realize that literally everyone you encounter wants your money and they'll do almost anything to get it. In one case, a woman in a wheelchair looked at us with sad, pleading eyes, asking for money. We indicated no and turned back to our conversation. A few minutes later I glanced back at her and saw her using a cell phone. I'm not sure what to think about that but I was less inclined to feel bad for her at that point. What do you think?

After dinner we went over to the Shanghai Bar to sample the night life. Albert is a regular here, and is, need I say it, a wealthy American, as am I, so the hostesses instantly made us feel very welcome. I chatted with a couple of them and learned that many work in bars in order to support their parents or keep a brother in college, and what they really want is to get married and have children. They're beautiful women as you can see. A hostesses' job is to get you to spend money on drinks, not to go home with you. If you buy them a drink they get a piece of the action. So we did.


Here I am with a lovely girl named Christine. Below are two other ladies, Nith and Aya, with whom we shared our table and a few drinks. Afterward Albie and I went to a place called Sizzlers on Street 136 where the girls were just as beautiful and even friendlier. No photos are available to document our visit there ;-)) and it's probably just as well.
Nith and Aya at the Shanghai Bar

Next day I needed to get my application for my Thailand visa filed so at about 9:30 Albie and I drove our motos over to the Thai Embassy a couple of miles away. Okay, I know I wrote that driving a motorbike in Chiang Mai was chaotic, and it was, but driving one here is even worse. The situation at intersections "controlled" by a stop sign is absolutely insane -- anything goes, anything. How aggressive you are is the only determinant of progress. First of all nobody pays the slightest bit of attention to the stop signs. It's a goddamn free-for-all. If it's rush hour, you edge into the intersection little by little until you can force your way across the steady stream of vehicles. As you edge in, people are constantly going around you from the right and left, both in front and in back, until at last you're through to the other side. Keep in mind too that, here in Cambodia, I'm again driving on the right as we do in the states. Add to that the fact that on these little motos there is no clutch and you push the shifter down to move to a higher gear, exactly the opposite of any motorcycle I've ever driven in my life. I ask myself time and time again why is it that I'm driving this damn thing in this infernal chaos? Adventure or transportation? I guess I'm not really sure.

Oh yes, there a couple more rules to keep in mind. There is a helmet law in effect and the police will be only too happy to fine you (and pocket the money) for not wearing one. Except at night. Nobody wears a helmet at night because apparently the cops go home at 5 pm. You know how in the states we typically use our headlights at all times now? In fact, newer motorcycles don't even have a headlight switch -- the lights are always on. It's different here. Here you are subject to an instant $2 fine if you use your headlights during the day! As I said, driving here is insane and I think that last fact probably illustrates it as well as anything. I recently posted this video on Facebook of a traffic jam I witnessed and repost it here.

video

I'll be here for at least a week I think. My visa is due back next Tuesday and seeing as I have nothing special planned in Thailand other than to head back to Chiang Mai for an extended visit I might just stay here a bit longer than the minimum. There are sights to see and perhaps a river trip ahead.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pattaya

I arrived in Pattaya early Saturday morning with Al. We went to his favorite hotel, the V&M Terrace on Soi Boakhao where he had a reservation, left our bags with the night clerk and went off to find some breakfast. We were hopeful that by the time we made our way back to the hotel that a room would be available there for me as well. If not, there are hundreds of places to get cheap lodging here. When we returned, sure enough a room was vacant so I moved my stuff in, took  a shower and hit the sack. I spent the rest of the day napping on and off because even though I'd slept through a good portion of the 9 hour bus ride, it wasn't a good sleep.

I came to Pattaya despite its reputation because I needed to meet up with Albert for a trip to Cambodia, as I've already explained. (More on that later.) I've learned much more about Pattaya than I ever would have had I been traveling solo because I'm here with four friends who, once again, have shown me around, got me hotel rooms and meals, and have made my first weeks in Thailand so easy, so interesting and so much fun. I owe them all thanks for including me in their savvy travelers group.

I should say right off that there is much about Pattaya that I will not describe in this blog. There are many photographs I wanted to shoot, but could not have really, and hence cannot share. I have seen things here that I'd never seen before or even imagined I'd ever see. The bar scene is crazy and wild. It is, at first look, appalling. Women are out working the bars and the beach, day and night. It's common to see older men, much older men than me, with beautiful, young Thai women on their arms. This scene is what makes Pattaya the place it is. Many older falangs come here for vacation or during retirement and stay because of the availability of, well, one wants to call it romance, but that term would invoke the most generous spin one could put on it rather than an accurate reflection of reality. But everyone here seems to enjoy themselves. The dancers in the go-go bars, for example, don't drink alcohol but they seem to enjoy their work and attack it with reckless abandon. I entered a air conditioned bar last night and because I had just come in off the steamy street I was a bit sweaty. A hostess promptly fetched a damp lemon-scented towel and wiped the sweat off my brow. I reckon one could conceivably get used to that sort of treatment. ;-)



As you can see, Pattaya is also a tourist destination for the well-heeled. visible in the distance are the big hotels in this shot of the beach to the north. BTW, I haven't been in the ocean for a swim yet.

I took a walk up the Beach Road the other day and took these shots. I wanted to get a few photos of the street vendors that are everywhere in Thailand. These few photos show people eating in "restaurants" (we might say they're "eating out"), like the ones we usually choose to frequent. The food is excellent and of course, very cheap.

The kitchen on wheels, this one with attached motorcycle, is yet another type of eatery but without a permanent place on the sidewalk it functions more as a take-out shop.





These two pickups are actually taxis, called song thaew, that patrol the streets 24/7. To catch a ride you simply signal the driver to pull over. He stops and you jump on. There are electric buzzers in back so you can signal him when you want to get off. You pay him a fixed price of 10 baht (about 30 cents) and you're done. The only drawback is that you can usually only travel up or down the same street--you can't set up  a custom trip. Think of them as a kind of motorized walkway like the ones the airports have these days. They're a very convenient way to travel--and you never have to wait more than a minute or two before one comes along.



Albert and I had a late supper in a place called the New Plaza near our hotel and it was completely top shelf. There was one item I chose just because it looked different and it was especially good: a combination of fish, coconut milk and curry with perhaps rice, I'm not sure, but it was served in a sort of cup fashioned from a banana leaf. Absolutely delicious! When eating out in this fashion, I typically choose my food by pointing to one or two of the vegetable, curry, fish or meat dishes on display which is then served on a bed of rice.  Practically everything comes with rice with the exception of noodle dishes like pad thai. There are always various sauces and seasonings available too - nam pla, or fish sauce, various sorts of chili pepper-laced variations on that, some pickles, sometimes sugar and salt too as the Thai like to have a combination of hot, sweet, salt and sour all together in one meal. I haven't had a bad meal the whole time I've been here although not all dinners are as good as that particular one. It's hard to understand why any Thai would ever visit a McDonald's or a Kentucky Fried Chicken when they can eat high quality food like this for less money. Maybe it's simply the power of advertising in action because McDonalds and KFCs, along with Burger Kings and Starbucks, are fairly common in the bigger cities. Go figure...


I include here a few pictures that I consider funny in a certain way. The lushest piece of greenery in all of central Pattaya is this vacant lot on Soi Boakhao. It is enclosed by barbed wire and probably destined to become the location of some large hotel. Next is a picture of a utility pole and what I call the "Wiring Diagram", a common sight all around Thailand. How anything works considering this rat's nest of wires is beyond me. Albert tells me it's worse in India. No wonder cell phones are so popular in 3rd world countries--they're wireless!




This last one is a picture of the bathroom in my hotel. This configuration is the norm here and all my hotel bathrooms have been set up this way. First note that the entire space is tiled. That's for a reason: the shower and toilet are close together and share the same floorspace. The only real problem with it is that after you shower the toilet is wet. Also note that the water is heated by an electric wall heater. You all probably know that in the states our bathroom electric receptacles have built in fault or shock protection because simply put water, electricity and the human body simply aren't meant to be together in the same small space. Also notice the small kitchen-type sprayer near the toilet. Thais do not generally use toilet paper. Rather, after using the toilet they simply spray themselves clean in bidet-like fashion. After a negative first impression I decided to try it. I can report that, at least in these tropical climates, the system does work and has some merits. But I wouldn't want to use it in Alaska!



Tomorrow Albert and I leave Pattaya for Phnom Penh by taxi. Albert set this up with a local cabbie. The trip will cost less than if I were to go by airplane and has some added advantages. We will be driven literally door to door from our hotel here, the V&M Terrace to our hotel in Phnom Penh, the Superstar, the timetable completely our own, we will see more of the countryside as we travel through it rather than over it. We will make stops whenever we want and perhaps see some interesting local color.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Udon Thani at last!

February 19, 2010 -- Return to Udon Thani

I started out at about 10 am after a Thai/Japanese breakfast that came with the room. Lots of variety: several kinds of curried veggies, soups, rice cupcakes, and fruit. No eggs or bacon were available, no problem there, but the coffee was Nescafe instant. Time was when instant coffee was all the rage. I remember my folks drinking it all the time, my mom being glad she didn't have to clean the percolator and the rest of us thinking how very modern we were to be drinking "instant".  And when I worked for Xerox Research in the 60s we had what we called "the coffee mess" in a drawer in the lab. Its contents: instant coffee, sugar, and powdered non-dairy creamer. What horrible swill it was!  But I needed some coffee and so with my otherwise tasty breakfast I drank one cup of Nescafe, just as in the old days with a bit of sugar and powdered non-dairy creamer, confident that just down the road I'd find a place to have some real coffee.

I had dressed light with shorts and a sleeveless shirt in anticipation of the mid-day heat I was sure would assail me as I moved ever further east toward Udon. I had spoken with Al earlier and he assured me it was on the warmish side there. Yet as I rode I got colder and colder as the road climbed up and onto a sort of high plateau. Pretty country but decidedly cooler than I had anticipated. I stopped for coffee at a little place with a big view and put on my jacket for only the second time during the trip.



A few miles from there, as I was hurrying down a long grade, the old Phantom suddenly died. It just lost power--going downhill no less. I twisted the throttle a couple of times -- nothing doing. I had coasted almost to a dead stop before the engine finally caught and returned power to the rear wheel. Wow, I thought, if that had happened when I was passing that truck a few miles back, it might've been much more serious! I was starting to worry about the old bike now that I was so close to completing the trip. In typical Dave fashion, I began thinking that it would be just my luck to have the thing fail this close to the finish. I stopped for my second coffee just outside of Chum Phae where I would turn north on Rte 228 to point myself toward Udon Thani at last.

Knowing that my goal was just ahead and, under normal circumstances, within easy reach I had to restrain myself from pushing the bike too hard. Where before I had been making 100 km/hr (about 60 mph) now I tried to keep my speed under 80. I had spoken with Al at the last coffee stop, who as I said earlier was in Udon, and he told me he'd gotten me a reservation on the night bus to Pattaya with him but that I had to be there by 6:30 to make the purchase. "I would have bought it outright for you but I wasn't sure you were gonna make it", he said. No kidding. I wasn't sure I was gonna make it either. Onward and northward I went.

After a few miles, the Phantom died, again. Just like the last time. I knew something was seriously wrong now. Ignition? Fuel problems? It has been missing under load from the beginning. Is the plug wire or coil beginning its swan song, I wondered? I slowed down even more and started using the bike lane along with the slower, smaller motos in order to safely drive at around 60 km/hr. My fingers were crossed as I neared Udon. Then just as I hit the city limit I started hearing a rattle from the engine, never a good sound. And it started to smoke. OMG, it's just a little further! Let's go, let's go! After about 10 more minutes of intense anxiety I arrived at Erwin's bar just across the street from Top Mansion, the hotel we'd started out from and where Al was waiting with my reservation. Erwin's mechanic friend was there and when I described what had happened he told me it sounded like a piston ring had failed. That caused a loss of compression, and power, which is what I experienced. Then after a few revolutions the ring probably reseated itself in a different orientation which allowed the engine to run again. But that can't go on indefinitely. Obviously.

I suppose the beauty of a rental is that it's not your problem when and if engines fail. I settled up with Erwin who, after who knows how many beers, was a bit drunk already at 4:30 when I arrived. By the time we subtracted my deposit and the costs of the repairs and parts I'd bought on the trip I owed him 1450 baht, about $43 USD. The total cost to rent the bike for the trip came to 6,000 baht or about $180 USD. If I return  to Chiang Mai later I will certainly rent another motorcycle. It's a fun way to get around and, as I hope you've gathered by now, exciting as well.

We made it to the bus station in plenty of time. I paid the 700 baht for my ticket and grabbed a quick supper from a food vendor across the street from the station as I had eaten nothing since breakfast. I slept most of the way here. Pattaya is the sex and sin capital of Thailand I'm told. The scene here is crazy and it goes 24/7. We arrived at 5 am and the bars, the 7-11s, and some restaurants were still open. Not all of them by any means, but enough so that if you've a mind to do it you can still find a pool game or a couple of beers at anytime, day or night. I came here mostly because my friends are here. And because I will need to go to Cambodia for a few days and a taxi from here to the Bangkok airport an hour and a half away is only 800 baht. Through a screw up on my part I only have a 30-day visitor's visa, a visa that expires around March 2. By going to Cambodia and applying at the Thai Embassy there I can obtain a 60 day extended visa which will be valid up to and beyond my departure date of April 4th. Lucky for me, Albert will be in Phnom Penh and will guide me though the process. It takes a few days to obtain visa approval so I'll get to sample yet another culture, and with an old friend as my guide.

Chiang Mai to Phitsanulok

Today, Thursday, February 18th,  I rode solo from Chiang Mai to Phitsanulok on the penultimate day of this motorcycle tour.

I reluctantly left Chiang Mai at about 10:30 vowing to myself that I would return to this city at my first opportunity. The day was perfect for riding. The temperature was probably about 80 F under slightly overcast skies. After leaving the heavy traffic of Chiang Mai behind and turning south on Rte 11 I detected a bit of a tailwind, always welcome on any sort of bike ride. It was a pleasant trip, if a little boring, on comparatively straight, mostly divided highways with light traffic. But I did well on my own stopping only for coffee at an Amazon Coffee shop on Rte 11 about 50 miles north of Phitsanulok. These shops are bracingly air conditioned and serve a good iced latte so they're a favorite place to take a break.


Although the country is in the middle of its dry season I crossed a river that presented a pleasing aspect to my eye so I immediately pulled over to take a photo. Scenes like this are uncharacteristic at this time of year so I was eager to get a photo. Most of our tour has been through parched country usually with a haze of smoke in the air; later in the day it gets hot which seems only to exacerbate the situation. (You can see smoke from burning leaves in both photos.) This far north the humidity is still low so the comfort level is pretty good. Later when I go south to Koh Tao to visit Joe, my buddy from Fiji, it's gonna get almost unbearable.




I had dinner tonight with Andy's friend Jeab and one of her girlfriends (who didn't speak any English). We rode our motorbikes. They led me to a nice restaurant by the river, the Nan River as it turns out, where we enjoyed some foods that I would never have picked out on my own. I told Jeab about the snake-head fish I ate in Chiang Mai and so she ordered one, broiled this time rather than deep fried, and it was delicious. I told her it was called pla noh up north but she had a different name for it. I had squid served in a hot pot with abundant chilis and kaffir lime leaf  along with some unidentified vegetables. Very good eating, as usual.




I bought a book by William Faulkner in a used bookstore Chiang Mai, Light in August. I  never had much luck with his books but I'm gonna give him another go. When I first entered the bookstore I asked the clerk, "where are the English language books?" She replied, "the entire lower floor is books in English. Other languages are upstairs." And please notice the book that's featured on the first shelf that catches the eye. It's Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, one of my all time favorites. And only last week I finished Paulo Coelho's The alchemist. This bookstore is as good as many in the U.S., better than most in fact, with a big selection of classics, histories, better literature, mysteries, and much more. So I reckon I'll be spending a few minutes with Faulkner before sacking out tonight.

Tomorrow l head for Udon. It will be my last day on this particular Phantom. It's been a helluva ride though. I think there is a motorcycle somewhere in my future and I think I might be riding it in Thailand.



Stats: Ride time 5:15; Distance covered 217 miles; Max speed 72.5 mph

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Chiang Mai

Next day, February 15, Andy gave me the whirlwind tour of the outlying area around Chiang Mai. We drove out of the city through the intense rush hour traffic to a nearby waterfall where we dipped our feet into the chilly water and watched couples picnicking in the shady glades nearby. We had lunch and he took me over to the guest house where he was staying to show me the nice accommodations. After seeing his hotel I decided to take the room over and stay for a couple of days as he was set to go visit a girlfriend in Lampang just south of here.

In the meantime, I'm still over at the Duret House a few blocks away and we have an evening meal ahead. We went to the night market east of the hotel and, as always, ate some great food. I tried the Lad Na, an egg noodle soup. It's fresh greens and other veggies, and long, soft egg noodles in a chicken broth to which I added some hot peppers and nam pla. Nice soup but eating that much hot stuff like that made me drip with sweat. The dry climate is so nice however, that in a few minutes I was comfortable again. A guy sure could get used to this sort of life. It gets fairly hot (85-95 F) at around 2 pm and stays hot until about 5 or 6 pm. After that the temperature drops into the low 80s and is perfect for sitting outdoors drinking the occasional cold beer.


Today (Feb 17) is my second day at Muan Baan and even though Andy has moved on, I'm still here with Albert so I'm not quite on my own yet. Albert moved over here too and we have both of the rooms in front of the guesthouse. We've been having a good old time visiting, catching up on Homer and Thailand stories, and enjoying the night air on my porch.



Albert and I, braving the always chotic traffic, went over to a restuarant near Chiang Mai College for lunch yesterday . I had seen these weird looking fish in the markets in several towns but hadn't een them cooked before. They're called snake-head fish, or pla noh, and the food place we ended up at was offering them deep fried for 30 baht. Albie took this photo of me with my pla noh.



It is hard to describe just how crazy and chotic the driving actually is in this city. Expecially if you're driving a moto of some sort. Because motos can slip between lanes they always move to the front of the lines while waiting for a light. Motos zig-zag here and there as they jockey to be up front ahead of the cars and trucks. The basic rule of the road is !!ME FIRST!! Once you're moving there are people swerving in and out of lanes, passing on the left or right, whichever is more convenient. Then there is always someone who is really in a hurry and passes you going 50 or 60 - motos are faster and more manuverable than cars and some drivers take maximal advantage of that. I find that one needs to be somewhat aggressive in order to maintain your pace and make it through to your destination. But you can't be too aggressive or you'll crash. Stopping fast is tricky as the pavement, after weeks no rain and insane numbers of cars and trucks passing, is quite slippery. It's easy to lock up your rear wheel especially during a hard stop on this smooth slick asphalt. I've used the term chaotic to describe the scene and even though I search for a better word, that one always comes to mind, Chaotic, dangerous, intense, hot and dirty, noisy -- all these terms work as descriptors and all apply when you're driving in Chiang Mai.

Learning to drive in Thailand reminds me of my first weeks in Boston except here it's more intense because people don't obey the laws. You'll frequently see motorbikes or tuk-tuks (small, unbiquitous taxis), coming at you in the wrong lane! And because the sidewalks are often blocked by food vendors, clothing sellers, parked  motorbikes, whatever, you always see pedestrians in the street, yet another obstacle you must somehow avoid. As dangerous as it is it's difficult not to enjoy the crazy energy that pulses on every street. The food vendors offer excellent eats at super low prices. I ate my last two dinners, pad tai gai, on the sidewalk up at the corner of my street. Her kitchen-on-a-cart is partially in the street, blocking traffic of course. But she serves up the best pad tai I ever ate! The meal cost me a little over a dollar, plus, I don't have to drive to get there.




I will have my morning latte, which are quite good in this hotel, and then pack my stuff and head out. My destination for tonight is Phitsanulok, about 5 hours away. Andy gave me the phone number of a woman friend of his who he said will help me with a place to stay. I spoke with her last night and she sounded friendly but there will be the usual barriers when we try to meet. It's like the blind leading the blind. Cell phones help but if you consider the unnatural sounding (to my ear anyway) street names and the fact that I have no map of that city to refer to, well, it could be difficult to find one another. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The trip continues..... Chiang Mai

(Click here to read about the trip from the start.)

It's February 12 and Day 6 of the road trip begins. We spent an extra day in Chiang Rai and now it's time to go. Nothing particularly exciting to report during the ride except for some great coffee and a menu that has lost quite a bit in translation, as you'll see. The repairs to the motorcycle cost 1000 baht, about 33 bucks, and included a new air cleaner and the fork seals. The missing under load, which occurs most often when climbing a hill, is unchanged. The only other thing that could be causing this problem is ignition; a bad plug wire or a bad coil. We decide it's foolish to spend any more money on this rental and so I suffer on the hills and struggle to keep up with the other guys. I had a great time in Chiang Rai but the place we're heading to next has a big reputation and I look forward with pleasure to spending at least a couple of days there as well. Pai has long been known as the place to be in northern Thailand. Many expats live there, the climate is mild, the food good and cheap. But before we get to Pai, I need to talk about our coffee stop, a stop we made somewhere on Rte 118 at a place called Coffee Friend. We stood at the counter for a moment and eventually a tiny young woman emerged from the rear. She couldn't have been 5 ft tall. She was very pleasant and had a big smile for us as she wrote down what we wanted. We ordered  3 Americanos and a latte, the latter for me. Then we went to the front to take seats near the sidewalk and she went to work. It took quite a while for the first drinks to appear but they looked good and had a nice layer of crema on top. After taking their first sips the boys reported that they tasted good. And when I got my latte it was very good indeed, I'd go so far as to say it was excellent. The best coffee I've had since leaving Homer and KBay Caffe four months ago. Here's a photo of me with Phon:


We stopped for lunch in small town a bit later and I photographed this menu. It's interesting that it had any English text at all because this town isn't exactly a big tourist destination but the translations are hilarious. I wanted to try the item named "the shrimp cooks whore dust" but ended up with chicken and cashews thanks to Al's help in requesting it.


We arived in Pai at about, as we say, beer o'thirty, about 5:30. I had read on the Internet about how things have changed since Pai got "discovered" by both falangs and vacationing Thais from Bangkok. We talked to a couple of college girls from Bangkok that had traveled 10 hours by bus to Chiang Mai and then another 5 hours to get to Pai. And they only have a four-day weekend holiday. It's much more crowded now than in the past. The streets were thronged with people at night, most of them falangs like us. Al told me over dinner that night, "This place used to be cool. Now it's too crowded and things have changed for the worse," thereby echoing the sentiments I had seen on the Internet. We had a great dinner at a restaurant named Na's and had a couple of beers in a little grocery before turning in for the night. During dinner we revisited our plan to stay two nights in Pai deciding instead to head directly to Mae Hong Son next day.  (Below are three shots of the scenery along Rte 1095 enroute to Mae Hong Son.)



 
 


I've been on the road with these guys for almost a week by now and I have to admit to feeling a tiny bit road weary. The pace has been fairly relaxed but driving a motorcycle 6 hours a day under these conditions is somewhat nerve wracking. As each day begins I feel as though I have to relearn how to set up for and make the thousands of turns this trip entails. In order to take a sharp turn at normal speeds on a motorcycle you must lean your body into it just right. The faster you move the more you've got to lean. If the turn you're negotiating has another turn following it going in the other direction you must quickly rearrange yourself to lean the opposite way. A skilled rider knows all this without having to think about it and can handle these quick switches easily. I, on the other hand, must more or less will my body to do what's required. I'm not always completely successful. A few times I've crossed into the other lane when I've suddenly  realized I'm going a tad too fast or the curve is getting tighter than it was at the beginning and rather than leaning even harder I just chicken out and give up and cross the centerline. On several occasions I've hit a bump in the road while leaning hard in a turn and my footpeg has touched the pavement. All riders experience this once in a while. The footpegs are attached to the frame with pivots or hinges. They fold up so they won't grab the pavement and cause the bike to lurch in this situation. But that said, it's still unnerving to hear and feel that peg scraping the pavement.

I like these guys a lot but the constant conversation is about motorcycles and women, not necessarily in that order. They've been  coming to Thailand for years and have girlfriends scattered all over the country so the talk invariably turns to someone wanting to see so and so in Pattaya again, or, someone else wanting to visit so and so in Chiang Mai. Al is heading back to a job in Alaska soon so he needs to start preparing to exit the country. Andy too must go to Cambodia for a visit with friends and family and to renew his visa extension. DC will be here almost the whole time I'm here so I will see him later and do some more riding with him. But in the meantime he is wanting to visit a friend in some other town so he will be leaving the group as well. Inevitably, we will soon go our separate ways and I'll be on my own. That's both good and bad because I have had a great introduction to the country, have hit almost all of the major cities in the north, have had a bike trip that I could never have pulled off, or even planned, by myself and have had the benefit of their many years of experience while doing it. In addition, my understanding of Thai language is practically nil and I'm traveling on a rented motorcycle that is in need of some major repairs. And I'm two to three days away from Udon Thani, where I must go in order to return the bike and pick up my suitcase. So traveling alone is a daunting proposition. But the notion of setting my own pace and being independent is very attractive. I'm sure I'll make it just fine once I get going. Nevertheless, I declined to raise the idea of splitting up.

Here are a few photos from a nice cafe we stopped at for a coffee break, the Baan Cafe on Rte 1095. Beautiful gardens, high-end bungalows, good coffee, and situated on a clean water stream. But we are moving ahead....






As you may have gathered from the photos above, the road to Mae Hong Son is another curvaceous son-of-a-gun. We hit a couple of nice spots as much of the road was at an elevation where some sort of evergreens were growing. The air was cool and resin scented, reminiscent of areas in the eastern states. I took a photo of us before a sign that says in essence "Curve No. 1548." Someone said he'd heard there are well over 2,000 curves on this road and others speak of "The Road of 10,000 Curves".  Yep...


Mae Hong Son is a lovely town. It's fairly rural and our hostel, the Palm House, is close to a little lake in the center of town. We ate dinner at a nice place right on the lake shore, the Sunflower Restaurant. I had fried fish, some sort of fresh water fish, a tilapia perhaps. It had a crispy, sweet-sour coating with a bit of heat thrown in for good measure. It was a fantastic meal. Next day I again thought to myself, maybe this is a place I could hang out for a while. Maybe I should stay. During morning coffee with DC he told me he had decided to head down to Phitsanulok to see a friend. Then Al decided to head directly back to Udon to prepare his bike for storage and then spend a week or so in Pattaya before catching his flight back to Alaska later this month. Al had already spent a week in Chiang Mai last fall but he encouraged me to go there saying it was a great city and that he was sure I'd like it. Plus, I knew Albert (another good friend from Homer) was in Chiang Mai and seeing as that city was on my list of places I wanted to visit I decided to head over that way. Andy volunteered to ride with me to the hotel district where Albert was staying near the Thapae Gate. So that's how it came to pass that our ride together came to its graceful conclusion. We would ride with Al to Mae Chaem where we would say our goodbyes to him.


February 14: The trip this day was a pretty one and the air was relatively clear so I took a few photos from an overlook on Route 1263. The first one (below) is the view north, the second a view to the south that give you a look at the many twists and turns this road offers to the biking "enthusiast". Most of the days during the ride have been hazy and not particularly good for photography. The haze results from a combination of smoke from burning fields of stubble and weeds and the fact that this is the dry season. The Thais practice slash and burn agriculture so we saw many fires and a lot of smoke during the ride.



It was on Rte 1263 that we had the scariest experience so far. I was riding last and as I proceeded down a fairly steep grade I noticed with horror a ridge of asphalt, a bump, running completely across the highway. There was no time to hit the brakes so I did what I'd learned to do while riding my old Honda CL-350 in the dirt -- I stood up on the footpegs in preparation for the hit. The Phantom and I went completely airborne for one, maybe two frightening seconds. As they say, I "caught some air." Everyone made it through alright but it was quite the topic of conversation when we stopped to collect ourselves. We don't travel all that fast on these roads with these bikes but still, I was going probably 50-55 mph when I hit that  bump. It was very fortunate that I was able to hang onto the handlebars through the whole thing. The experience shook me up for quite a while.

We ate our poorest lunch of the trip in Mae Chaem, a variety of junk foods from the 7-11 store because we couldn't find a restaurant there. After lunch we gassed up the bikes and shook hands all around. We wished one another safe rides and farewells until we meet up next week in Udon. Then Al turned south and Andy and I turned back north toward Chiang Mai. We proceeded along some more very nice roads before hitting the main highway into Chiang Mai. The pleasant country continued to treat us to good views, some demanding riding on very twisty roads, and refreshingly cool weather conditions. DC called us on his cellphone to let us know he was doing fine but had made a wrong turn and was spending the night in the little town of Hot, many miles short of his goal. We all carry cellphones and use them constantly to stay in touch. It makes things so much easier when you can simply call your friends no matter where they are in Thailand.

After an especially fine day of riding We arrived in Chiang Mai and met Albert just in time for the famous Sunday night market. He was staying in a very cheap hotel right near the ThaPae Gate-- 200 baht per night -- about 6 bucks. It had no Internet or TV or air conditioning but of course one doesn't need aircon in the north and Internet is available for cheap across the street so I went ahead and checked in to a room just down the hall from Albert. Andy knew of a place he liked from previous visits so he went over there to check in and shower. We agreed to meet up after showers to do the market. By this time I've visited several night markets and I wondered just how different this one could possibly be from the others I've enjoyed. It was pretty special--tons of craft offerings and a multitude of interesting and tasty foods--many more choices than in the others. We wandered around for a while sampling the foods and making a few purchases. I ate some great coconut concoctions that were vaguely reminiscent of coconut macaroons but softer and much better, especially as they were offered hot off the grill. We ate fresh strawberries and watermelon, chicken satae and some little cooked eggs, quail eggs perhaps, octopus sushi, and shish-ka-bobs, etc. There were goups doing music of various types including a drum and dance performance that was unique and very enjoyable. Quite a treat all around. Below is a screenshot from Google Earth of this last day's ride with the magenta color. You can see a portion of an earlier ride in yellow above.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Riding the Phantom

This is our 5th day out of Udon. We're in Chiangrai. We arrived yesterday and decided to lay off for a day of rest. Plus, I wanted to get the badly leaking fork seals replaced on my bike. This is a nice town and the climate up this way is much more enjoyable than in Udon Thani. It's fairly hot  by mid-afternoon but mornings and evenings I've taken to wearing my long pants. And the humidity's low so I am not sweating all the time. Very pleasant indeed. Here is a Google Earth screenshot of our travels. Day 3 is in blue and day 4 in red.
(BTW, if you want to read about the motorcycle trip from the beginning, click here.)


We went straight to the the Honda shop after checking in to our hotel, the Orchids Guesthouse. Luckily this is a large town so the shop had the seals in stock. Most people here drive scooters, Honda Waves and Dreams. As the service manager told us, "We don't stock a lot of parts for the Phantom because it's a rich person's moto." They also were able to get their hands on a new air-filter. The machine feels much better now -- the ride is much improved and tomorrow I'll get a better feel for the performance. Hopefully the missing under load that plagued me on the hills will be gone. The repairs cost just under 1000 baht, about 30 bucks. At one point there were 3 people working on the bike. Thais use motos a lot--they're everywhere-- and the standard repair service is quite good and available everywhere, except for Phantoms I should add. Again, they're fairly uncommon because they're relatively big and expensive. The reason the engines are so small for such a big bike is because they are manufactured in Thailand and bikes with larger engines are subject to a high tax or tariff. Rumor has it that Honda will make and distribute a 250 or 300 cc motorcycle in Thailand next year.

We headed north out of Nan on our third day of the ride. This day brought us to some of the curviest stretches of highway yet. The country got greener as the day wore on because in addition to going further north we were also gaining altitude. Much of the day was spent cruising at an elevation of about 4,000 ft. When we hit shady patches the temperature dropped. I absolutely loved that. The riding was world class. I enlarged a section of the Day 3 route to show the twistiest section; lots of ups and downs with many hairpin turns. I was sort of relieved when the road leveled out and got straighter.


Just before reaching Chiang Khong we got our first look at the mighty Mekong River. This major river rises on the Tibetan Plateau and runs through China's Yunnan valley before getting to the point where the photo was taken. That's Lao on the other side. Day 3 ended with 199 miles logged in a total of 5:29 hours in the saddle over a period of about 8 hours on the road--a longish day considering the climbing and turning, shifting and bouncing we experienced. We were definitely ready to stop for the night.



We left Chiang Khong next day at about 10 am. The cool air was quite bracing and caused me to shiver a bit for the first hour or so and I almost put my jacket on but it soon warmed up and got quite nice. Al and I rode to Chiangrai together while DC made a short detour into Myanmar for a visa extension and Andy went to visit one of his girlfriends in a nearby town. The route was fairly straight and the ride, at 99 miles total, relatively short. We got together again later in the day in time for our post-ride beers.

Afterward, we enjoyed eating at the night bazaar in Chiangrai. Tons of choices, wonderful food, all for very little money. I ate tempura vegetables, the obligatory sum tom and sampled the deep fried crickets. All major cities have such a market and all have an associated food court serving great "fast food" Thai style. You could easily eat every one of your meals in these food courts. Here's a couple of shots from the bazaar.




Here are a couple of shots of the fried insect scene. The salted deep-fried crickets I had were not especially flavorful but neither were they weird tasting. I tried them just to say I had eaten one of the regional specialties. In the lower photo the merchant is serving up a helping of crickets like the ones I ate.





Another feature of all food courts are the beer girls. These are young, usually quite pretty, girls who are paid by a brewing company to promote the sale of beer. Each company provides a distinctive outfit with the company logo displayed. I'm told that many of these gals are college students and are working their way through college. They're very attentive to your needs and fetch and serve beers and will occasionally even drink one with you but they're not "available" as many other ladies who work the girly bars are. If one notices that your glass is empty, she's quick to pour another, add ice, or be otherwise helpful.

DC got this one to pose with me for this picture. She works for Cheers Beer as her shirt proclaims. I walked around after dinner tonight taking a few photos of Chiangrai. The gilt clock tower at the end of our street is a well known landmark of this fair city.


I haven't yet mentioned the massage parlors. There are literally countless massage parlors in every major city and thousands of Thai women who give massages. And, yes, most massages come with sex if you wish for an extra few bucks. Prostitution is very common and is an accepted part of the Thai scene. It's also common to see older falangs (foreigners) with young Thai woman on their arms either as dates or regular "girlfriends," for lack of a better term. It's obvious that many Thai women don't treat older men in the same way as back in the states and I must say as someone who has reached geezer stage, it's all very interesting. For a Thai lady, an older man with some sort of income could be the best way she has to reach a better life. How often that actually happens is unknown. The massage girls literally come out onto the street as you pass and try to entice you into their storefronts. There are three parlors on the corner of the little lane leading to the Orchids Guesthouse and dozens in the neighborhood. They're open from about 9 am until very late, every night.


Tomorrow we'll pack up and head to Pai, going the long way of course. It'll be a fairly long ride but we'll take time to stop and enjoy the scenery. Until next time ...