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.