Thursday, November 25, 2010

Doi Tung

Thursday, November 25th -- Thanksgiving Day

Nut and I are about to leave Thailand for a couple of weeks. We'll be making a two-day trip via slow boat to Luang Prabang, in Laos, down the Mekong River from Chiang Khong the day after tomorrow. We're back in Chiang Mai at the moment and I've just returned our rented motorcycle so that part of the trip is over. We had a wonderful ride that ended well -- no accidents nor even any close calls, a small miracle for having driven 3 or 4,000 km in Thailand, sometimes known as the Land of Smiles; at the same time it's a country where many of the drivers are absolutely insane. I must add here that, while it can get crazy at times, the drivers of most larger vehicles thankfully seem to be aware of and act courteously toward moto drivers.

We arrived in Chiang Mai a few days ago, on the 20th, and got here just in time for the Loy Krathong festival. It was fun and and a wonderful experience that I'll try to cover in another post. But I want to describe our last day of motorcycle adventuring which took place on a day trip out of Chiang Rai on the 19th. We went to the Queen Mother's summer residence in Doi Tung at the extreme northern tip of Thailand near the junction of its boundary with those of Laos and Myanmar. The trip up and back was another fabulous biking experience on beautiful roads in perfect conditions.

On the road to Doi Tung - Rte 1138 (above and below)

The Queen Mother's estate is a work of art; it's a beautiful mansion situated on a high hilltop in rural Thailand surrounded by artfully constructed, carefully manicured and meticulously maintained flower gardens. It is hard to describe the veneration accorded the royal family here in Thailand. Although many Thais live impoverished  lives their king is one of the wealthiest people on the planet. His property holdings are extensive, and totally private, he is a major stockholder in some of Thailand's biggest firms, owns something like 3500 acres of prime real estate in Bangkok -- the list goes on. But he's a good man by all reports and people simply love him despite the disparities in incomes and the quality of their lives. There are laws on the books to protect his image as well. If you speak against him (or any of the royals) by criticizing him publicly for example, you can be sent to jail for up to 15 years or even longer if the offenses are deemed serious enough. No free speech here I'm afraid. Even farangs have been jailed for slandering the king so everyone must be diplomatic in discussions thereof. I explored the topic of the king's wealth with Nut the other day.
I asked, "Are you concerned that your king is so wealthy?"
She replied, "No, because he's a good man and he works hard for the people."
I said, "You work harder than him I'm sure." (She works 7 days a week, 12 hours a day and can barely pay her $200/month rent in the off season).
She said, "Not important. He is our king."
End of discussion.

Back to the queen mother's residence on Doi Tung. This place was essentially a summer palace. The queen mother is long gone but her estate has been turned into a public park. Cameras are prohibited inside the residence proper, which is consistent with the manner in which the royals are protected, but I can tell you it's a place "fit for a king". The art and furnishings are beautiful, the solid hardwood floors smooth and gleaming, the views from the many verandas stunning.

This guard wouldn't smile or answer but when asked his buddy said, Sure, you can take a photo

When I was in Versailles and Fontainebleau last year I marveled at the spacious rooms, sumptuous furnishings, the exquisite art, and wondered what it might have been like to have been a French peasant in the 1700s seeing the royals living the way they did while you could barely keep food on the table. This place is similar in that sense although far smaller in scale.

We toured one other nearby place, an arboretum that while not as opulent or extensive had some interesting features. We ran into an old Burmese gardener who was eager to show us some very old (he claimed one was over 900 years old),  magnolia trees and other points of interest. He took us to a viewing platform named, I think incorrectly, Tri Cities Viewpoint because from its vantage point you can see three countries, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Embedded in the ground directly behind the platform  was a metal marker of the kind surveyors use to mark important locations, called "bench marks" in American jargon. He told us it was a boundary marker and that Myanmar was on one side and Thailand on the other. He shot this photo of Nut and I with one foot in each country. I recorded a GPS waypoint for future reference.

After I got back to our hotel in Chiang Rai I fired up Google Earth and imported the coordinates of the marker and zoomed in on it. Unfortunately that particular area was obscured by clouds on the day the satellite image used by Google was photographed but the boundary is visible and appears to be a little bit north, about 0.2 miles, of the spot. Thinking Google Earth might not have the international boundary exactly placed I checked it against my OSM open source GPS map. The results were the same. My guess is that the old guy wanted that marker to be the on the international boundary but I decided a more likely scenario is that it is actually on the boundary of the arboretum. The coordinates of the point are: N20.33609, E99.81070. If anyone knows a way to check this out or verify it in some way, please let me know.

The ride back to Chiang Rai was spectacular. We first rode north on Route 1149 along a narrow ridge right alongside the border with Myanmar that provided superb viewing on both sides. The road was narrow and the descent to Mae Sai very steep. It descended in a series of tight switchbacks -- probably the steepest road I've driven in Thailand -- which meant a lot of first gear engine braking along with constant hydraulic braking to keep our speed below 15 mph.

View east from Rte 1149

View west to Myanmar from Rte 1149
Here's a Google Earth screenshot of Route 1149 as it threads it way along the border. Our GPS recorded track is in blue, the international boundary in yellow. Myanmar is on the left (west), Thailand to the right (east) with the area around Mae Sai just visible at upper right. As you can see, our track and Route 1149 apparently cross into Myanmar in several places. Are these real crossings or are they just Google Earth location errors? Seeing this also makes me look back at the boundary marker question and reconsider -- maybe the old gardener is right after all.

Obviously, there is plenty of exploration to be done around Chiang Rai and the north of Thailand in general. I think this trip was a fitting way to end our motorcycle expedition. You simply couldn't ask for better conditions or lovelier scenery. But we had reservations in Chiang Mai for the next night, the first of three nights of Loy Krathong celebrations, and hotel space was in short supply so this trip officially ended the tour. We drove the fast highways south next day to Chiang Mai and after a few hours were back at our hotel. I haven't tallied the total distance we drove but I'm pretty sure it's in the neighborhood of 1500-2000 miles. It was a hell of a nice trip.

Next stop, Chiang Khong, and after that Luang Prabang. Talk to you soon.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lake Phayao

My time in Phayao was made extra special by finding a small road that hugs the west shore of this fairly large lake. We knew there was a road from a conversation we had with an American expat we ran into at a Phayao restaurant but he didn't know exactly how to get there and consequently couldn't give us directions. Hell, next day was a nice day for a ride (aren't they all?) so Nut and I piled onto the old thumper and headed south on Route 1, the main drag, hung a right onto Rte 1193 heading east and drove slowly for a mile or so until I spotted a small side road leading toward the lake. It was a pleasant little side road. The little towns we passed through were so peaceful on this sublime day, the flowers gorgeous, the people so friendly, that we ambled along in third gear rarely exceeding 15 mph. Finally we reached a junction with another larger highway but during the whole time on the small road I hadn't sighted an obvious lake shore road. Bummer.

Yet the ride had been so pleasant I decided to retrace our route and return to Phayao the same way we'd come. When I stopped to photograph some flowers Nut struck up a conversation with a lady who had crossed the road to ask her what the big falang was doing with that camera. "Oh, photographing flowers? I have many flowers at my house. Come along." And she did.

Nut and she were talking all the while I was photographing and sure enough, she knew exactly how to get to the lake and explained it to Nut in a flurry of Thai directions, comments, ooohs and aaahs. It turns out that many roads lead to the lake shore. It's just that they all look like driveways -- tiny, one-lane concrete driveways. We went down the "main" road a few hundred yards, hung a left and proceeded down a narrow, shady lane to the lake. It seemed a completely different lake from the crowded scene in Phayao -- green and serene, the air filled with birdsong, fishermen paddling longboats here and there, and the whole shoreline lush with lotus plants.

I had not seen these huge, (6-10" in circumference), lotuses before so they really caught my attention. The fruit, actually the seed pod, is sold in markets all over SE Asia but I had never seen the flower. And it is a gorgeous thing to behold. I tried to get close to one for a good shot but of course they grow in bogs so unless you're willing to wade in mud and water up to your waist, you can't very in tight. Here are my first efforts:

We followed the road north as it meandered back and forth hugging the lake shore until it hit the main east west highway on its northern side, the same highway that we had turned back from earlier. This point offers the easiest access to the lakeshore drive and below I show our GPS track with its coordinates for any of you lucky enough to attempt the same drive someday. We turned around and did the entire road again, this time going all the way back to the south

I was so taken with the scene over there that we returned towards evening hoping to catch some nicer lighting conditions. The sunset was obscured by clouds but I got a couple of shots I liked. Just beyond the lake to the west are rice paddies and mountains -- I liked the clouds well enough to show these two samples... (click on them to see full size)

I returned to the lake shore early next morning. Nut uncharacteristically said, "You go alone. I want to sleep more." Off I went. The northern part of the lake was shrouded in mist but as I made my way south the sun began to burn it off. I caught this fisherman making his way out for the day's work.

Lake Phayao fields just after sunrise

Just as I was about the head back to the hotel I spied a lotus flower in a small drainage ditch next to the roadway. It was mostly closed when I first spotted it but after a few minutes in the direct rays of the sun it gradually opened to reveal its beautiful interior. You can still see the morning dew on the petals and leaves if you look closely. (I included this one as a full size photo.)

Below is a screen shot of our Lake Phayao circuit. The northern part of the route is unfortunately obscured somewhat by the light color of the Google Earth (GE) satellite imagery in that area but if you happen to have a GPS or want to explore the area yourself with GE, the coordinates of the north junction of the lake shore road with Rte 1001 are N 19.20176 E 99.86291.The screen shot below doesn't really do our drive justice because I've zoomed out far enough to show the entire circuit so plugging those coordinates into GE is a much better way to see it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Nan Notes and On the Road to Phayao

We spent a couple of days in Nan. The hotel there was perfect, as I reported in the last entry. We took one short ride about (40 miles - 60 km total) out and back on Rte 1169 but we spent a lot of time goofing off, reading, doing Photoshop stuff, but mostly trying to stay off the bike for a while. (BTW, the Blogger caption bug seems to be fixed so clicking on any photo will display it at full size. Click the back button on your browser to return to the blog.)

Nan River on Rte 1169
Later that day I waited until dusk and then went out on the hotel grounds to take some pictures of the great flowers surrounding the place. One of them appears in my previous entry. Here are a few more.

I don't know what's with this flower thing I'm into lately. I love capturing the fine detail of these blooms and will continue to post pictures of them. As you've no doubt gathered, Thailand is bursting with floral delights at this time of year -- people's yards and the roadsides are vibrant with colorful, and to me exotic, flowers, trees and shrubs. I can't resist them.

We left Nan at about 9:30 on November 16th and drove north to the city of Phayao via Route 1091 and 1251. The trip wasn't especially exciting but we did enjoy some lovely scenery along the way. Route 1091 was especially nice and I have a few photos that can better tell the story.

Hilly farm country along Rte 1091
Wildflower - Rte 1091

It was a relatively short ride ( 3 hrs 45 minutes ride time for a total of 112 miles - 180 km) made slightly longer by the fact that we missed two turns on the poorly marked highway. The weather was perfect: no wind, temperature about 90 degrees, very light traffic. We stopped for a noodle lunch in the small town of Chiang Muan. I show a couple of these roadside meals in the photo below. The lunch on the left we had in the even smaller town of Santisuk on  the day trip we made out of Nan. It's made with pork, (koi teou moo nam tok)  and was served with fresh Thai basil, one of my favorite seasonings. In the other one, you can see a chunk of congealed blood which I mentioned before as being an important  ingredient for these flavorful soups. It also has heaps of duck meat on top of a thick sauce and homemade noodles (koi teou ped). Both dishes were yummy and at 25 baht per serving (less than $1), cheap too. And you can see in both photos the holy trinity (actually four) of add-ons, called kreung prung, that are always present to season noodle dishes to your particular taste. Nut is very discerning about adding just the right amount of each of these to round out the flavor: ground chili, sugar, and two choices of items pickled in vinegar to add a sour component to play against the sweetness of the sugar. Often she will add nam pla (fish sauce) if more salt is needed.

Koi Teou Moo Nam Tok (pork noodles)   ---   Koi Teow Ped (duck noodles)

If not for the lake, Phayao wouldn't be a fabulous place to stay. The lake draws tourists and that means if you want to stay in a place with a lake view it will cost you relatively more than if you don't. The lakeside is lined with pricier places so we took a room near the market in a slightly run down hotel but at only 280 baht, we made do with the super thin towels and dingy paint. Next day we headed out to find a road that skirted the less populated west side of the lake. What we found was special, very special. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

On the road to Nan

Wildflower - Rte 1339
The trip to Nan was splendid. We went via a different  route from the one we took last spring, the "back way" that is actually more direct, a short cut in fact, over Route 1339. It runs north out of Nam Pat and crosses the Sirikit Reservoir -- actually the Nan River -- at the little fishing village of Pak Nai on a primitive ferry. DC and Al have driven this route and told me it was beautiful and a great ride. We encountered a short stretch of gravel road just outside of Nam Pat, rough and dusty, but it lasted for only a half dozen or so miles. After that the 1339 became one of those classic Thailand roads, twisty and smooth with no traffic to speak of, and hilly with some wild country slightly  reminiscent of Alaska thrown into the mix. A simply gorgeous highway, and perfect for motorcycling.
First view of the Sirikit Reservoir from Rte 1339

We arrived at the ferry landing on the south side of the Sirikit Reservoir after about an hour and a half of breathtaking views along The 1339. 

There was no activity thereabouts to speak of so Nut inquired of a fellow lounging nearby about the ferry schedule. No problem, he replied, I'll call one for you. Pretty soon our "ferry" arrived. It was a battered aluminum double hulled barge with rough cut hardwood plank flooring. And it was being towed by a long-tail boat powered by what could only have been a lawn-mower engine. At first I couldn't believe that this tiny boat was actually going to pull us across that lake but once again the Thai's well developed ability to get along with less was amply demonstrated and before I knew it I had driven the Phantom up the rickety ramp and we were off, the tiny engine blatting loudly for all it was worth, moving us slowly but steadily across the lake.

The "ferry" that would take us across the Sirikit Reservoir
On the ferry to Pak Nai
Lakeside home - Sirikit Reservoir
Floating homes - Pak Nai Village

After an expensive lunch at a floating restaurant we took off for the final push to Nan. The restaurant charged us 30 baht for ice, 120 baht a plate for some fish that was good but not great, 20 baht a plate for rice, and 10 baht each for 3 bottles of water for a total of 320 baht, well over $10! We were a captive audience and we were half wealthy falang into the bargain. They took a large amount of money off us.
Pak Nai menu, falangs beware

We drove the rest of the way into Nan at a leisurely pace but the special scenery ended when we got off Rte 1339 and onto Rte 101. It was still nice driving but this road, the major approach to Nan from the south, was much busier and noisier. We checked into our hotel and Nut fell immediately into bed for a 2 hour snooze. Riding a moto from where she sits isn't nearly as much fun as driving one. Frankly, I think the trip is wearing on her. I warned her that sitting on a bike for 4-6 hours a day as a passenger might not all that much fun.  But then the bike trip is almost over. We go next to Phayao for a few days and then back to Chiang Mai where the motorcycling part of this visit will end.

Route 1339 scene

Farms along Rte 1339
A section of new road on Rte 1339 - perfect for motorcycling
 Our hotel in Nan, the Eurngkum Guesthouse, is a steal at 350 baht per night (about $12 USD). We're staying in a brand new building (it was under construction when I was here with the boys last spring) and it's a super good deal. Spotless, with squeaky clean ceramic tile everywhere, huge main room and bathroom, a lovely covered deck, gorgeous flowers and plants everywhere -- we even have a plant in our bathroom, another first for Thailand. Highly recommended!

Flower - Eurngkum Guesthouse
 I'm planning to put up an album on Picasaweb and/or Facebook titled "Flowers of Thailand". I don't know the names of any of these plants but it almost doesn't matter. They're beautiful and they're everywhere, lining the highways, in people's yards, in public parks. Nut knows most of them but transliterating the Thai names into English is tricky so I haven't taken the trouble. The beauty shown above she calls "Leelah Wadee". 

Stats for the trip: 4:27 time moving, 6:08 total for 98.4 miles (158 km).

Tomorrow we're off to Phayao. Why? Because it's there and Nut has heard great things about it and wants to go there for a visit. Sure, why not? I'll write more when I can. Be well.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nam Pat

The area surrounding Nam Pat, a little town in Uttaradit province, is simply beautiful (N17.72766 E100.68595). It's in a fertile valley surrounded by mountains and the climate is friendly this time of year. Rice paddies, sugar cane and pineapple fields, and groves of teak trees line the twisty, well paved highways -- a motorcyclist's dream. Nut and I traveled here with DC yesterday. It was a long drive from Udon -- too long. We left Udon on a cloudy day after waking up hearing rain patter on the rooftop. We considered postponing our departure but it didn't look like the rain was gonna continue so off we went as soon as it quit. We hit a small patch of very light rain after an hour or so but we pushed on through it and were rewarded with sun and a balmy 75 degree day. We were on the bike for almost 8 hours of ride time in a 9 hour trip -- we covered only 241 miles. By the time we got here it was dark. Thailand is a tricky place to drive in the day time -- driving the Phantom at night with its ridiculously inadequate headlight is scary and something I always try to avoid. But when you're only 30 miles from a nice hotel and hot food you simply journey on hoping a dog won't run out onto the highway or a foraging chicken take flight and end up in your face. I intentionally followed a late model pickup for quite a while on the last 30 km leg of this trip using its bright white headlights to scope out the road ahead.
DC and Nut on the road to Nam Pat
Nut and I were in Nam  Pat a few days ago on our trip to Udon and yesterday we basically retraced our journey back here and right back to the same little hotel. From here we'll head north to Chiang Rai maybe, and Phayao for sure because Nut really wants to go there. We like the Nam Pat area and this hotel so much we stayed an extra day. We visited a teak tree forest preserve, the Sak Yai Forest Park, (sak = teak, yai = big) to see a giant and very old teak tree that is ensconced safely in the park. The Nam Pat region is, or was, all about teak. Almost everything in this hotel is made of teak which is a heavy, weather and rot resistant hardwood. How heavy is it? It doesn't float. In the old days when logs were floated out of the forest on a river, teak logs had to be chained to other lighter logs to keep them afloat until they reached their destination, usually a lumber mill.  World demand for this wood has reduced its abundance to the point that the Thai government has designated forest reserves to protect and preserve the remaining trees for future generations, somewhat akin to our redwood groves I imagine. The Sak Yai Forest Park is one of those reserves.

Nut posing with the majestic Sak Yai - it is 1,500 years old
( N17.65659 E100.56854)
The area abound with caves so we headed west for another 10 miles past Sak Yai to visit the Chan Cave. The day was warm, the sun bright as we ambled through the pretty farm country. We hiked up a small hill to get to the trail junction and then another rocky path up to the cave itself. It as impressive, and refreshingly cool I might add. Naturally, we took a few photos.

The trail head - it helps to have a translator. Chan Cave is to the right.
Chan Cave (N17.58449 E100.41969)

Forest scene near Chan Cave - Nam Pat
Aside from the beautiful country, Nam Pat doesn't offer all that much for the tourist. It doesn't have a 7-11 store, and believe me they are everywhere in Thailand, or much in the way of regular restaurants. We eat at the market or at small mom & pop places. The food is good but Nut complains that it isn't actually Thai food but Lao food. (But then she's a south Thailand chauvinist.) It's generally much spicier and not as sophisticated as Thai food in her opinion. Sheesh, I don't care -- I like it just fine. It's super cheap too. Our breakfast this morning was a tasty pork and noodle soup, rich and dark, spicy of course, and flavored with blood, a common ingredient in the dishes here, and actually, all around Thailand. Breakfast for two, including some coconut custards and a waffle, was about 60 baht -- 2 bucks!

BTW, the Phantom is running just great. It's amazing what a difference the new chain is making. The little thumper has considerably more power on the hills and shifting has improved noticeably as well. I'm thinking now that many of my problems with last year's bike had to do with its chain which was, like this one, badly worn to the point of being noisy. And the new sprockets no doubt play a role too. As they wear, the gaps between both sprockets' teeth get deeper and thus the chain rides lower than it should. This generates increased friction and extra heat. Due to that increased frictional resistance such a chain steals significant power from the Phantom's already small engine, and this in turn demands more shifting. The increased heat causes the links to stretch and ride even lower on the sprocket which in turn causes more friction, more resistance, and more power loss. It's a vicious cycle. Anyway, long story short, I'm enjoying the bike much, much more now. Even riding 2-up it climbs hills in 5th gear where before it required a downshift into 4th.

In a closing note I want to add that my search for a motorcycle is narrowing in and is now focused on the Suzuki V-Strom DL650 twin. (While I still love the Beemers the costs of buying and maintaining one are significantly higher than for most other bikes.) I hadn't really considered the 650 before, focusing instead on its big brother the DL1000, because its engine is smaller than my old Honda CB750 -- a purely academic (and admittedly stupid) argument at this point because engine technologies have changed greatly in the years since 1975 (gasp!), and today's 650 cc engines (4 valves and 2 spark plugs per cylinder, with fuel injection) probably outperform my old 750cc Honda. Many owner's reports and forums I've read on the Internet indicate that the smaller V-Strom, nicknamed wee-Strom, is a very capable bike. It's lighter and more maneuverable than the bulkier DL1000 and gets much better gas mileage, in the neighborhood of 55 mpg. Having ridden a 200cc bike for many miles now I was forced to ask myself, what's up with this need for a bike with a 1000cc engine? A 650cc engine is more than three times the size of the engine on the venerable Phantom. Do I need a bike that will go 125 mph  (DL1000) as opposed to the 650 which will top out at 115? WTF am I thinking here?

2007 Suzuki wee-Strom DL 650
Next stop, the small city of Nan. We'll take a ferry, visit a small fishing village and drive on some gravel, all firsts for me. Talk to you soon.