Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A night on the town and a ride on a big bike

Dateline: Chiang Mai

The other night four Homeroids, DC, Sean, me and Al, were sitting around having a beer at John's Upstairs Bar in Chiang Mai talking about motorcycles and motorcycling. Out of the blue DC offered to buy a round of shots. All attention was immediately riveted on our normally thrifty friend. Those of you that know and love DC also know that an offer like this coming from him is a rarity. Indeed, the last time DC bought "a round" it was grilled chicken more than a year ago at Chicken Smoke Corner in Udon.

DC told us he hadn't been in Chiang Mai in over 5 years and now here he was in Chiang Mai with 4 Homer buddies in a bar exchanging riding stories. This called for a special celebration, he said. I hadn't planned to stay out late — I wanted to play tennis in the morning — but being the type of person that never turns down a free drink, especially one from DC, I immediately accepted his offer. As did the other Homer bad boys. Happily.

At first we were all gonna get whatever we wanted — two Jim Beams for DC and Al, a scotch for me and a dark rum for Sean but after thinking about it a moment and planning ahead to the inevitable second round we wanted to minimize confusion — we would all get the same thing, that is, tequila. Oh, and of course we were drinking beers along with those shots. My namesake Chang for Sean and me, Leos for DC and Al.

The night progressed nicely. We talked motorcycles, girlfriends, Homer history, fishing, motorcycles again. We had a second round. DC and I decided to rent 650cc Kawasaki Versys motorcycles for a circuit of Chiang Mai Province. Sean and Al would rent Honda CBR 250s. We planned the ride for the day after next already fearful we might just be feeling a tad rocky in the morning.

We had a third and fourth round. John's Bar has an interesting, actually downright weird, thing they do in the men's toilets. They place big blocks if ice in each urinal as if to tempt you to make a hole in it, or cut it in half with your urine stream. By the time the fourth round was done and keeping in mind the tall beers we were having with each round, there resulted all manner of claims about damage done to these "icebergs", as you might imagine. Whatever the reality of those claims, the ice in the far urinal was gone after round four.

We had a fifth round and decided to quit while we were ahead, so to speak. We paid the bill. We got up to go home. As we headed for the down staircase we heard a commotion at our backs. DC was on the floor, ass over teapot. We hurried back to help him to his feet. As soon as we let go he went down again. We decided we'd better help him get home. I shot these photos with my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

DC is a happy drunk

We walked him to his hotel and then up the stairs to his room. We left him to get himself into bed and proceeded to have a couple of laughs over the evening's events as we walked up the soi to our own hotel. Next day was a slow day for all.

In the event DC decided to rent a CBR250, while Al and Sean totally reneged and rode their Phantoms. Only I went ahead with the plan to rent a Versys. It was a pricey rental at 1,800 baht ($60 USD) but I somehow managed to rationalize the expense. The Versys is a fantastic bike and if money were no object I'd surely have one. However, even with today's good exchange rate one would cost over $9,000 USD. It's a beautiful bike and very powerful. DC and I rode a big circuit around Chiang Mai and the power on tap in that beast was truly awesome. Sean and Al chose to do a different ride correctly figuring they'd only hold us up. I seldom run my Phantom at more than 80 kph (50 mph) but the Versys easily ran 110-130 kph and accelerated like a bullet when I rolled the throttle and got it up to about 160. It is a very similar bike to the V-Strom DL650 I had last spring but it seemed more powerful. Who knows though? It's hard to make a comparison after so much time has passed. And too, here I'm riding on slower roads with tighter curves. At any rate the Versys is quite a bike no matter how you slice it.

Here's a shot of DC with the CBR 250. DC is a good rider and feels right at home on the new Honda. He rides a CBR 150 now and it's only a question of time before he springs for the new ride.

DC is feeling better in this shot

DC takes a turn - Route 118 north of Chiang Mai
Nut and I rode over to Pai yesterday. It was another beautiful day and a lovely, if tame, ride on the little workhorse. More later...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

We spend a few days in Chiang Rai

We've been in Chiang Rai for the past few days. I had to make a visa run as the first of my 60-day visas was due to expire on November 22nd. Mae Sai is only an hour from here so on Sunday we rode up there where I checked out of Thailand and crossed the river border into Myanmar, turned around and checked right back into Thailand. This border crossing is one of Thailand's busiest and I saw many farangs in my few minutes at the passport control offices. It only costs 500 baht to enter Myanmar although travel is still greatly restricted in that country. AFAIK, foreigners are not allowed to travel anywhere in Myanmar unless you enter the country by air. There is a small Burmese border town just across the river, Tachilek, that features a shopping area selling all manner of baubles and knock-offs of more expensive items. The selection of branded and logo-ed motorcycle gear is impressive and all of it costs far far less than the real thing.

My visit to Tachilek was short because Nut had forgotten to bring her passport or ID along and couldn't come over -- she was waiting "back in Thailand". Plus, there was this persistent street vendor trying to sell me viagra who simply wouldn't take no for an answer. It was interesting that his starting offer of 4 tablets for 450 baht was eventually lowered to 50 baht, which just goes to show that you should probably never buy for the first price you hear. I finally shed this PITA by making for the bridge to Thailand. I wasn't really into shopping and I certainly wasn't going to buy any drugs from a street vendor but I had wanted to see the moto gear for future reference.

Old hotel in Mae Sai

Anyway, I'm now using the second of the three 60-day tourist visas I got from the Thai Embassy in Los Angeles in August. This one will last me to January 20th when I will have to make another visa run somewhere. We had a nice lunch in the market in Mae Sai and shopped around for tea. I am a big tea drinker, no pun intended, and finding good quality black tea here has been difficult. For this trip I brought along 2 kilos of my favorite, a China Keemun black tea I buy from Upton Imports in Massachusetts.

You'd think that tea would be easy to come by here in Thailand where they grow the stuff but what I've found so far has been unsatisfactory. With Nut available to help with the linguistics we walked around the market in Mae Sai where we happened upon a few shops selling paper-wrapped blocks of Yunnan tea from China. This is the northernmost part of Thailand and the Myanmar-China (Yunnan Province) border is only about 100 miles north of here, which is the reason the local shops have Chinese tea. For 140 baht I bought a 250 g block of compressed Yunnan tea to sample to sample. Turns out it's an excellent tea, especially for the price I paid, about $4.50 USD for a little over a half pound. We've looked for it here in Chiang Rai because I'd like to buy more but haven't had any luck.

Aside: Speaking of tea, I like mine "English style", that is, with milk and a sweetener, specifically, evaporated milk and honey. Honey's easy to find but since the floods in Bangkok, evaporated milk has been impossible to find in the shops, and believe me I've looked for it in many of them. So while some bemoan the shortages of beer or of  bottled drinking water, I bemoan the scarcity of Carnation canned milk. My sharp eyed girlfriend spotted a window full of Carnation in a small shop along the highway the other day -- I bought four cans so I've enough to last for a while. Silly me.

We made a day trip to the little town of Phraya Mengrai to visit with fellow blogger Village Farang and his lovely wife Oiy at their beautiful home. It was a fun visit and our time together passed much too quickly. They generously invited us to stay the night but Nut was feeling too shy to stay over with people we had only just met. I hope to visit again someday and take them up on their invitation. Unfortunately, I forgot to take my camera along so cannot show you either their home or the gorgeous sunset we caught on the way back to town.

Next day we took another ride, this time to a popular hot springs just west of the city. The countryside around Chiang Rai is quite beautiful and is easily accessible. Before we got to the hot springs I spotted a turn off for a waterfall. There was no distance posted on the sign but I thought it would probably be fairly close to the highway we were on. But in that assumption, as in so many other things, I was wrong. The narrow concrete road twisted and turned, rose and fell, changed to gravel and then paving blocks, and finally back to concrete. No cars, nobody walking, and no other motorbikes. Highly unusual for this country. Nut got scared and had begun "counseling" me to turn back when we eventually reached a small village, some attractive tea plantations, and the waterfall in question.

On the road to Huai Kaeo Waterfall

Tea plantation near Huai Kaeo Waterfall
Huai Kaeo Waterfall
Nut and the Phantom on the road back from Huai Kaeo Waterfall
We resumed our trip to the hot springs by a different route but it wasn't much better than the way in except for being shorter. The "shoulder" in the photo above is about 12 inches lower than the road so one really wants to stay away from it at all costs. The hot springs were located in a nice park on the river Kok but were not remarkable -- in fact I just looked for a photo to include here but didn't find one -- I never snapped the shutter during the visit. Nut and I sat by the river for a few minutes and then headed back to Chiang Rai.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Riding the Honda CBR250

I'm in a bit of a quandary. A few days ago I rented a Honda CBR 250 and immediately fell in love with it. Several of the the rental places here in Chiang Mai have the new Honda and for about 25 bucks you can rent one for a day. That's what I did. Nut and I rode it to Doi Inthanon and back, a total of about 130 miles, and we both loved it. The problem is that I just bought a cherry 2005 Honda Phantom, a comfortable but underpowered cruiser. I've posted photos of the Phantom in here earlier. The thing is virtually brand new and it's a pretty bike equipped with a few farkles that I like and a few that I don't. The Englishman I bought it from put only 1000 km (620 miles) on it in 5 years. I've had it only three weeks and have put 2300 km (1420 miles) on it already. But climbing the rugged hills in northern Thailand with two riders and gear greatly taxes its little 200 cc, old technology engine.

Nut on the CBR 250 at Doi Inthanon (N18.58897 E98.48684)
Me on the CBR 250 at Doi Inthanon
As you can see I am, ah-hem, a bit on the large side for this bike, especially compared to my petite companion. (I know, I know, she's cuter too.) But the 250 can haul my big ass around easily. It's surprising how quiet and powerfully smooth the engine feels. You turn up the throttle and the power comes on quickly. At anywhere in the 4000 to 8000 rpm range its response is quick and solid. Redline is 11,500, or maybe it's 12,500, I forget, but I never got close to that in my test ride. Because I was completely unfamiliar with the bike I never went faster than about 75 mph and then only briefly. There were times when the engine lugged on a steep pitch but if I remembered to keep the revs up high enough this wasn't a problem.

The Phantom has a 200 cc air-cooled, carbureted engine. As I said, it's old technology. The CBR on the other hand is equipped with a fuel injected, dual overhead cam, 4 valve, water cooled, 250 cc powerplant. Both are single cylinder, which makes them narrow and light, but the newer bike has a sophisticated counter-balancer that was designed to eliminate much of the vibration inherent in a single cylinder motor. This seems to work quite well as I detected minimal vibration in the hand grips at any speed. The CBR can also be had with ABS as a 15,000 baht ($500 USD) option.

The reason I didn't buy a CBR at first is because it has a sportier riding position than any bike I've ever ridden and I wasn't sure it would be comfortable enough for a guy of my size and weight on a long ride. My Suzuki V-Strom was a huge bike by comparison and on it I sat almost completely upright. I was able to ride it all day without any fatigue in my arms. The Phantom has a similar seating geometry although it is much lower to the ground. I rode the CBR for about 5 hours that day and while I felt a little discomfort in my wrists it was nothing like I had feared. The seat is comfortable enough. Apparently the pillion seat is okay too because as we hustled along the highway on our return to Chiang Mai Nut yelled out, "Sell the Phantom!"

Today Nut and I took a 130 mile trip on the Phantom. Other than running around town this was our first real outing since the test ride a few days ago. I must confess to being less than impressed with the old thumper. It's noisy, underpowered and clunky. We struggled going up the hills, nothing new there, and when I got it up to the maximum speed we generally travel at, a ripping 50-55 mph, the noise was overwhelming.

So, it appears a trade of some sort is in the future. New CBR250s are not readily available. They're in short supply since Bangkok and the Honda factory there are currently flooded. A Honda salesman we talked to yesterday in Chiang Mai wasn't anxious to sell their  floor model for cash money -- he wanted to sell it on payments so they could make more money on it. In addition, they had a price tag of 129,000 baht ($4,200 USD) on it -the highest priced CBR I've seen anywhere in Thailand.

Buy new, buy used, keep the Phantom? That's my quandary. The CBR250 is a dream to ride. I hear tell they're very popular stateside. And they should be. As a low priced, high performance small-bore bike, it should be an ideal starter bike for new riders.

We're holed up in a nice little hotel, it's actually called Nice Apartments, on Ratchadamnoen Soi 1 (N18.78881 E98.99238). It's costing 330 baht per day. We walk down the street to Sailom Joy for breakfast and across the street to a little hole in the wall reatuarant that serves up some of the best northern Thai food I've ever eaten. Moo kum waan (hot, sweet marinated pork salad) and tom sap (pork bone soup with tons of Thai basil) and grilled fresh tilapia are our faves. Dinner for 2 sets me back about 200 baht - about 6 bucks. Oh, and Sailom Joy makes a pretty tasty, and good looking, latte - take a look.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Bangkok Flooding - an alternate view

The flooding in Thailand and Bangkok is apparently not big news in the states but here though it is the only thing worth reporting and the TV news is now exclusively flood related. The crisis is definitely not over and the situation will probably get much, much worse before it gets better. Even after the water recedes, in a few weeks or months, there will be a multitude of problems to deal with. There are abandoned cars and motos everywhere, there is also uncollected garbage everywhere. The potential for waterborne disease is extremely high. Consider this: the greater Bangkok area contains approximately 15 million people and since the water rose many of those people have toilets that no longer flush. Many areas have had chest high water levels for upwards of 3 weeks. Some Thais, trying always to be cheerful, are playing in this water and allowing their kids to play in it. This article is about the irrepressible Thai optimism that many, including me, find so special and intriguing. Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles by travelers and residents alike. That appellation is not without justification as you'll see.

A couple of weeks ago I emailed to many of you a collection of photos that illustrated the flooding situation in a very dramatic way. Today I present a few more photos to demonstrate that Thai optimism. The photos are screen shots I took last night of TV interviews done by Thai commercial TV reporters of flood victims (November 07, 2011). They present a picture of Thai culture that other news sources probably do not. Remember, these are people who are being interviewed outside of their flooded homes, their flooded markets and places of work -- flood victims. I was struck by how many times the interviewees smiled during the conversations. We have watched a ton of flood coverage and these portraits are quite typical.

And just a few more smiling victims ...

Market scene - notice the vendor at right - he's smiling

Her car is stuck in the water and she's smiling

I find this tendency to put the best face on everything amazing and admirable. It has drawbacks though. Thais sometimes do not face a problem head on but deflect it with a smile or a little white lie. In the current situation some say the government officials are doing this instead of facing and solving the problem at hand. But hell, our government tells us little white lies too. All the time. If you stop and think about it some of those lies weren't so little nor were they very "white". Just sayin'

Nut and I are currently in Chiang Mai motorcycling and enjoying the balmy, dry weather. I don't know when we'll be able to go back to Bangkok. Our place is still dry and has so far miraculously escaped flooding. But there are still mega-cubic meters of water trapped north of the city that have yet to reach the ocean.

At least the rain has stopped. That's something.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

We Tour Northern Thailand by Motorcycle

We take leave of Udon Thani

I've experienced some of the best motorcycling in the world in the past few days. The new Phantom is running well, nothing like those miserable rentals of the past two seasons. It is comfortable enough and gets between 60-70 mpg riding 2-up. I do wish for more power at times but, hey, it is what it is and its miserly gas consumption makes up for the lack of power to some extent. (Gas costs ~ $3.60/gallon here.)  I found a little shop in Udon that swapped out the silly Harley platform foot rests for folding foot pegs (a must for touring 2-up), yanked the fake whitewalls and the crash bar, which was much too low for safe cornering at speed. I gladly gave the mechanic the bars and foot rests in partial trade for his almost 2 hours of work. The bill for the whole deal, including a chain adjustment and lube, was 150 baht, about $5 USD.

We packed up and left Udon a week ago visiting Loei and the park at Phu Kradeung before heading west to Nam Pat via Route 12. I had driven this same road the first time I was in Thailand but I was in a hurry to get my clunky rental bike back to Udon before it blew up. This time through I was able to more fully enjoy the hills and forests bordering this wonderful highway. Nut had never been there and despite the fact she was chilly at 2400 ft above sea level she remarked several times that she was impressed with the beauty of the area.
Nut takes a call from her daughter at Phu Kradeung town

On the road to Nam Pat
We showed up at our favorite little guesthouse in Nam Pat and found our friend Al sitting there on the deck enjoying the evening air. He had departed Udon a couple of days before us. We had dinner together, shared some drinks on the deck afterward and made plans to meet up in Nan in a few days.

I toured the area around Nam Pat next day by myself because Nut was reluctant to get back on the bike after the longish day to get here: in short, her butt (her ตูด dtuut) was sore. I visited the Sirikit and Din Dams on a beautiful summer day. It was 94 in the shade that afternoon but the air up here is fairly dry so it's much more comfortable than steamy Bangkok. The region is famous for its teak woods and right now the fields are lush with the ripening rice harvest. It's a wonderful place for motorcycling.

Rest stop at Keuon Din on Sirikit Lake (N17.82585 E100.39808)
Obviously, this topiary sign says Keuon Din (เขื่อน ดิน), right? (meaning: earth dam)
(My Thai studies are temporarily on hold -- too much travel and preoccupation with the flood.)
Elephant topiary - Sirikit Dam
Campground outhouse at Lam Nam National Park near Nam Pat (N17.76680 E100.49244)

Floating house - Sirikit Lake

Next day Nut and I packed up for our trip to Nan. I decided to go the same way we did last year, that is, via Route 1339 north from Nam Pat. It meant we'd have to wait for a ferry to take us across Lake Sirikit (N18.04856 E100.69145). It was worth the wait because the 1339 is an absolutely beautiful highway. It features rolling hills and deep woods, lots of gentle curves, and many shady stretches that are nice and cool even in heat of the afternoon. And the short section of gravel I recalled from last year is now paved with smooth new asphalt.

After a short wait the "ferry" came to take us across Sirikit Lake to the continuation of Route 1339 at Ban Pak Nai. We've done this crossing before but it's always fun to see these minimalist ferries take cars and trucks across the lake. The boat pulling us is powered by a 5 hp lawn mower engine equipped with a long shaft propeller. It is not a fast traverse. One guy somehow does it all with some very clever docking maneuvers at each unloading site.

We arrived at our usual hotel in Nan, the Eurngkum Guesthouse (350 baht/night), and again met up with Al who had arrived the day before. We all went out to eat and during dinner he told me about some of the great motorcycling to be had around Nan. We made plans for a day long ride the following day. Nut again declined to come along preferring instead to get her hair done and then to hang out in the hotel room watching news of the continuing drama in Bangkok. It was just as well because the roads we traveled would have been much more difficult with a heavily loaded bike.

We first drove north on Route 1080 out of Nan to the little town of Pua where we turned east on Route 1256. This is a huge rice growing region and the harvest is just beginning in some places. Most of harvesting is still done by hand. The stalks are cut with a hand sickle, laid to dry in the sun for a time, then gathered up and hauled to be de-hulled and further processed. The coarse rice stalks are left in the field and stacked here and there for use later as animal feed. As you can see it's a very labor intensive process.

Rice harvesters near Pua - Route 1256
Rice harvesters near Pua - Route 1256
Just after I took these photos the road began to climb. And climb. And climb. It climbed until we reached the height of land in a chilly, cloudy rest stop 5400 ft above sea level. While the views from all sides were spectacular, we were in a bit of a hurry to leave because rain was starting to fall. We suspected this was only because of the altitude, these high mountains making their own localized weather, so we quickly raced down the road and back into the sunshine and warmth, one of the few times in my life I've actively pursued heat for its own sake. The few raindrops that hit me on the way down evaporated quickly in the warm sun. We pulled into the Boklua View Resort for lunch -- it's a very nice place with several beautiful and very private brick bungalows that rent for 1600 baht per night ($52 USD), which is fairly expensive by Thailand standards but beats the hell out of many American hotels I've stayed in for a lot more dough.

View from Route 1256 near the height of land
View from Route 1256 near Doi Phu Kha NP
Homer friend Al at the height of land - Route 1256 - Doi Phu Kha NP   (N19.17592 E101.10799)
Road hazards like this one are common - Route 1256 - Doi Phu Kha NP
A view from Route 1256
We had lunch on this beautiful deck - Boklua View Resort

After lunch we turned south on Route 1081. Al had promised that this road was as good or better than Route 1256 and after running along the ridge top along the highway for 20 or 30 km I had to agree. Big vistas, nice curves, no traffic, smooth pavement -- a biker's dream come true.

A view off Route 1081 south of Bo Kluea
A beautiful biking road - Route 1081 south of Bo Kluea

Route 1081
We were back in Nan all too quickly. We had done a 200 km (125 mile) loop over some of the finest motorcycling roads I've yet ridden in Thailand. For those of you that have Google Earth installed, here is a link to a KML file derived from my GPS track of the trip that's viewable in Google Earth.

Below is a screen shot of the Route 1256 portion of the trip. If by some streak of good luck you happen to find yourself in Thailand looking for some great motorcycling, you should head to Nan for a few days and do this tour. It is really special.

Screen  shot of our trip - the height of land on Route 1256 is at right
After showers and a nap we all went to the Nan riverside to watch the paddling teams practice for the upcoming boat races. This is a big annual event and already today the town is filling up with spectators and teams from provinces in Thailand and neighboring countries. The races are this weekend.

The Nan River at sunset - November 2, 2011
We plan to be in Chiang Mai by Sunday night. Al is going to Chiang Rai for a few days so we'll be saying goodbye to him for a while. Loi Krathong is coming up as is the Royal Flora Horticultural Festival. Chiang Mai will be hopping next week for sure.