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 ...