Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in Thailand

I find it interesting that in a country where most people are Buddhists there are Christmas decorations and carols playing in the stores and streets. Wikipedia says the proportion of Christians in the Thai population is about 0.7% yet Thais seem to enjoy this most distinctly Christian holiday. We were in a big shopping center the other day and I heard "Frosty the Snowman" and "Jingle Bell Rock" coming from the sound system. Here are a few odd photos of this seasonal madness that have been accumulating in my smart phone since the beginning of December:
Tree at Platinum Central - Bangkok

Below is a latte decorated by the owner and barrista at Silomjoy Restaurant on Ratchadamnoen right next to Thapae Gate in Chiang Mai (N18.78774 E98.99295), our favorite place for great coffee and farang breakfasts. Each latte was different. The woman is a master of latte art.
Latte - Silomjoy restaurant - Chiang Mai
Last night I had a beer with Albie and Giancarlo at the Gecko Bar, our favorite hangout in Bangkok a short walk from our place. (N13.76173 E100.49463) The girls were dressed for the occasion.
Nok, Pooky, and Genee at the Gecko Bar
A few minutes ago I went to Tang Hua Seng, the local store where we buy groceries, to pick up some yogurt. I happened to catch Santa as he made an appearance, much to the delight of the shoppers. The background music was "The First Noel" followed by "O Little Town of Bethlehem". Where would a Thai ever hear about Bethlehem I wonder? Go figure.
Santa visits the Tang Hua Seng department store in Banglamphu
Happy elves - Teng Hua Seng
Xmas Eve 2011 - Ratchadamnoen Road - Banglamphu
I've been emailing almost daily with my sister as the big day draws near. We've been reminiscing about Christmases past. I miss the holidays with family and close friends, of course, but it feels good not to be as immersed in it as I once was. Maybe a Thai style Christmas is just about the right amount for me.

Wherever you are in the world here's wishing each and every one of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Peaceful New Year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Maiden Voyage - Conclusion

A road trip to Pattaya is not one I'd recommend to anybody looking for a thrilling motorcycle ride. A contributing factor is that we live on the wrong side of Bangkok for a trip east, which is where Pattaya is. That means our trip began and ended with an hour-long slog through the center of the city. We left on a Sunday so at least the traffic was bearable. Add to that the fact that the principle "beltway" roads between here and Pattaya are 8 lanes wide to allow for tourism and manufacturing traffic -- it reminded me of driving the NJ Turnpike -- endless factories and development -- fairly ugly from a bike. Next time we make a jaunt it will be in the other direction, to Kanchanaburi and points west. Aside from that we made good time and the new bike achieved a very respectable 86 mpg (36.5 km/liter) for the non-city portion of the tour.

The photo below shows the bike set up for touring. The locking top box was purchased and installed here in Bangkok by Dr Bike on Chokchai 4.  It cost ~6,000 baht ($200 USD) This is an excellent store with a friendly English-speaking owner. Recommended. I bought the saddlebags from Chiang Rai Saddlebags, another excellent outfit. Ordered them on Wednesday, received them Thursday. Cost: 3,000 baht ($100 USD).

My CBR 250 ready for touring
Compared to the Phantom, the bike is pure joy to ride. It's significantly more powerful and because the engine is water cooled, much quieter. At most speeds the new counter-balancing scheme developed by Honda works well and vibration is minimal. In addition, it rode surprisingly well when fully loaded, absorbing the bumps handily. The Phantom would bottom out in similar situations eliciting cries of pain and the occasional curse from my sweet riding partner. Of course, with me and Nut and gear aboard both bikes are overloaded and carrying much more weight than they were designed for. That makes the nice ride on the CBR even more remarkable.

The single cylinder design means lots of torque is available at a lower rpm than you typically get in a twin of similar displacement. If you're in the 4000 to 7000 rpm range and you twist the throttle up the CBR really takes off. Freeway speeds here are significantly lower than those in the states (thank Buddha) and I felt confidant about keeping up with traffic. OTOH, with the Phantom I could be sure that the car I just passed would be overtaking me on the next hill.

And it has ABS, a sophisticated combined front/rear Anti-skid Braking System. I wonder if it might mitigate the situation known as high-siding wherein a rider inadvertently locks the rear brake and the bike swerves to one side bringing the rear wheel sideways to the direction of travel. Releasing the brake at that point returns traction to the rear wheel suddenly with the undesirable effect of tossing you off the "high side" of the bike. Your best reaction would be to keep the brake locked either until the bike comes to rest or you can somehow straighten it out. Good luck on that. With the combination ABS on the Honda, the rear wheel should not lose traction and thus high siding prevented. I hope I never actually find out if my theory is right. In the meantime having it there for slippery pavement situations is reassuring.

I made this little chart to illustrate the differences between the three bikes I've recently owned. My Suzuki VStrom was a beast compared to these little thumpers but I reckon for ease of use and gas mileage the CBR is a fine choice for Thailand. My 650cc VStrom never got more than 55 mpg, for example.

Comparison - dry weights approximate

The single caveat I add is at highways speeds I did feel a slight high frequency vibration in the hand grips that eventually became uncomfortable. Same thing in traffic when you're on the brake and clutch constantly -- the extra weight on my hands on this sportier moto (I lean forward over the tank more), by comparison with both my Phantom and my VStrom eventually caused a bit of numbness in my fingertips. The sheer fun of driving it offsets this problem but I wish the handlebars had the same rubber vibration dampers as the Phantom. Wearing gloves helps quite a bit and I will keep my eyes open for cushioned hand grips.

We took the slow, scenic route along the coast for the ride back to town stopping for the night in the resort area of Bang Saen in Chonburi.  That afternoon we visited a stunning Chinese Buddhist temple nearby.

The Thais call this temple Wat Na Ja (N13.32904 E100.92284)

Column detail
Column detail

Roof detail -- Wat Na Ja
The interior was also spectacular -- especially the colorful murals adorning the walls -- but cameras and photos are forbidden alas. As always I was impressed by the amount of effort and creativity, not to mention wealth, that people are willing to dedicate to the worship and glorification of their various gods.

We saw a troupe of monkeys - Nut was taking no chances

Then later as the sun turned golden and dropped into the sea we walked the beach and found a nice restaurant along the beach quay. It was a perfect night for a romantic walk and a perfect way to end the day. Here are a few photos from that evening's sunset walk. And the obligatory food photo ;-))

Nut at Bang Saen Beach

Notice the careful smile — All I want for Christmas is my new front teeth.
For dinner we had som tam (green papaya salad), an omelet loaded with mussels, a seafood salad of mussells, shrimp and squid, and some steamed cockles Thais love, hoy krang. I was put off these at first because the juice inside is reddish, like blood. But they taste fine especially when dipped in the fiery hot green sauce that always accompanies them.
Our "four plate" dinner at Bang Saen Beach
Sunset — Bang Saen Beach (N13.30143 E100.89814)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Maiden Voyage CBR250

Nut and I are about to head down to Rayong to make the maiden voyage with the new CBR250, a three day trip. There is nothing special to see there but her friend Kaan is honeymooning nearby and we thought we'd spend an evening with her and Tony, her brand new German husband. And then last night we were at the Gecko Bar with Homer friends Albie, Phil and Andy who are going to Pattaya for a few days. Out of the blue Nut says, we will meet up with you in Pattaya! Where that came from I don't know because her usual sightseeing preference is for temples and flower gardens but I reckon now our first stop will be the sin city itself. It's only a couple of hours away and on the route to Rayong. Luckily today is Sunday and the roads, usually jammed with vehicles, should be relatively open.

I've been driving here and there in Bangkok and it's been not much fun really. In about 60 miles of driving I don't think I've ever managed to shift into top gear. Man, the traffic here is positively intense. Gridlock is the norm and the moto drivers totally insane; they swerve around cars at high speed, weaving in and out of traffic. As I sit waiting I see over the roofs of the cars up front to a veritable sea of heads, mostly unhelmeted, bobbing back and forth, here there and everywhere, as motorcyclists make for the front of the queue. Long, hot waits at a light can be overcome on a bike by squeezing between lanes and moving forward always forward, avoiding side-view mirrors as you go, often completely circling around a vehicle that's "blocking the aisle" hoping some other crazie doesn't cut in front as you maneuver in the tight spaces, until you've bulled your way to the head of the line.

Of course I don't want to stand there for 3 light changes in the heat and exhaust fumes any more than they do so I pull (some of) the same stunts. It's the only thing that makes driving here bearable -- we do insane things to remain sane. How sane is that?

But how in hell anyone can stand to drive a car in Bangkok is simply beyond me. I have an excuse for now – my bike is new and exciting and I want to drive it. But as a regular means of transportation? No.
I'll take one of the 90,000 or so taxis that inhabit these same streets – they're ubiquitous, cheap, and air conditioned. And I'll try to figure out a way to get us moved up north. Chiang Mai has it's share of ugly traffic jams too but compared to Bangkok, Thailand's Big Apple, it's a small city. And you can drive out of it in 30 minutes.

I bought a lockable top box that has a backrest for Nut. Because this isn't a long jaunt  we will be able to put all of our stuff into that. I've got the GPS mounted and powered and while the free OpenStreetMaps software I'm using doesn't get all the one-ways and "no left/right turn" situations right it still makes driving vastly easier. I couldn't do without it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Returning to Bangkok by train

Afternoon view from Route 1263 north of Mae Cheam
When I last wrote we were finishing up our Mae Hong Son loop, cutting our tour short in fact, so we could hurry back to Chiang Mai to sell the Phantom. By the time we got back all the potential buyers had faded for various reasons, one of those being that Thailand makes it hard for a farang to own a motorcycle. You have to jump through a bunch of hoops with special documents, etc., that can be difficult to obtain if traveling on a simple Tourist Visa as most farangs are. If you happen to have a Thai friend you trust, as in my case, you can simply put your bike in his or her name. Two of the potential buyers weren't aware of this troublesome complication. Another had found a bike in the interim.

At any rate we had a nice trip back from Mae Chaem to Chiang Mai and spent a few days chasing down those motorcycle leads before finally deciding to make the long ride down to Bangkok on the Phantom where I was sure we could sell it. Neither of us was looking forward to the trip because it's mostly on big highways and in relatively dull scenery. Because the floods have closed many roads it would take two fairly long days in the saddle to get home. We had checked out of our guesthouse and while eating breakfast at our favorite breakfast place, Silomjoy, my phone rang. It was Guy, a French expat, who was interested in the bike. He sounded sincere, told me he had cash money ready, and he was available to meet with us right away. Three hours later the bike was in his possession and I had 60K baht in my hand. He was so happy about the purchase he blogged about it, and used my photos to illustrate the post. It's in French but here is the link anyway.

We made reservations on a sleeper train for the next day, departing at 3 pm and arriving Bangkok next morning at 5:30 am. Cost: about 1000 baht ($30 USD) for two. We had tried the air conditioned 1st Class train last year and while the cabin was comfortable the aircon practically froze us during the night. Simple solution you say. Turn the aircon off or to a higher setting. Sorry Charlie, not on a Thai train. No user interface, no controls. Take it or leave it.

This time we bought tickets for a so called fan car where the cooling is provided by oscillating fans set every few feet in the roof of the car. Up north this time of year aircon is completely unnecessary and the fans are a perfect way to stay comfy. Plus, you can ride with the windows down if you choose. And I always like riding with the windows down, especially when the temperature is in the high 80s.

Departing Chiang Mai 
Dave (aka  "Chang") enjoying a Chang beer
I mean, this is seriously the best way to travel in Thailand; cold beer in hand, window open wide, watching the beautiful scenery roll by.

Before you get the idea that it's perfect, however, let me tell you that later on these seats are converted into a bed. That's just fine if you happen to be less than 6 feet tall. I'm 240 lb and 6'2" tall -- the berths are a bit of a squeeze for me.

Nut had been observed running around in the station before the train pulled away, I knew not where. Turns out she was buying us lunch for later. She hates to be hungry, and truth be told, so do I. We make a good team. Sort of. The problem is that while she happily eats, and with the help of her storied "tapeworm" manages to stay slender, I put on weight. The beer doesn't help all that much I'm sure.

Here's our little picnic lunch and a few more pics:

Box picnic lunch
View of already harvested rice paddies from the train
Riding the rails -- Northern Line -- Thailand
Those few hours before the sun went down were very pleasant ones sitting there on the train. For some reason my thoughts raced back to a pleasant ride in my Wisconsin buddy Roger's Chevy II with a bunch of fellow partiers on a fine summer night many years ago. We had danced until the Trempealeau Hotel closed for the night putting an end to the evening's revelries. It was well after 2 am but still warm so we rolled the all windows down, pointed the wing windows (you know what those are, right?) back at us, and turned the radio up loud as we high tailed it back to the farm with sweet Susan resting her pretty head on my shoulder. What a wonderful way to end a summer evening. I lived in Wisconsin for a year or so back in 1987-88, working on an organic farm with a bunch of great folks who brewed their own beer and grew their own pot. It was a wonderful period of my life when Tuli was still a youngster and most of my Alaska days were still ahead of me. Why that memory and not any one of dozens of similar ones from my years in the lower 48? Who knows? Memory is weird like that.

View from the train - fighting cocks at feeding time
Concrete bridge -- Northern Line -- Thailand
We're back in Bangkok now after spending about 6 weeks up north. It's nice to be back but I already miss the cool dry air of Chiang Mai and the northern provinces. The next few days will be busy as I prepare to buy the new motorcycle, the Honda CBR250. I have an appointment with the American Embassy where I will get an Affidavit of Residency which will hopefully allow me to put the new bike in my own name. Then on Wednesday I get my teeth. I'll post a before and after picture and you can all get a good chuckle at my expense. Then on Thursday I'll buy the bike. I could buy it today if I wanted one in black. But I'm tired of black or black & grey color schemes. I want Red.  A red bike with ABS should be here Thursday. That would be my bike. I haven't owned a brand new vehicle of any kind since my 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix. That's a long time, eh?

Friday, December 2, 2011

True confessions

We're in Mae Hong Son. I must be getting snobbish in my approach to Thai food because Nut and I just came back from a dinner that, while nominally Thai, was simply not very good. I had eaten at this particular place, the Sunflower, on my first visit to Thailand and remembered having a good meal there, a fried fish with chilies. But the three items we ordered tonight were bland and uninteresting. The tip-off that I might have noticed if I were being observant is that the clientele was exclusively farang. This is often the kiss of death. Nut will dismiss a place out of hand when she sees that and this used to irk me a bit. Now, I see the wisdom in her judgement. A place crowded with Thai diners is almost sure to be better than one full of farangs. Unless farang food is what you're after.

The ride over here from Pai is one of the best in Thailand. Magnificent vistas and nice road surfaces with plenty of curves for the motorcycling enthusiast. Yet, when I woke up this morning I had this fleeting feeling that I was just getting up to do the same thing all over again. Get some breakfast, then hastily pack, throw our stuff on the bike and take off after a short visit to another cute little Thai town. My inherent negativity kicked in and I began questioning myself. What the hell am I doing? I asked. The days of travel have run together in a kind of blur.

View from Route 1095

View from Route 1095

View of a hill town -- Route 1095
We get up between 7 and 8 every day. I spend at least an hour ot two on the Internet reading email, checking Facebook, chatting with friends far and near as I drink my morning tea. Nut, ever hungry for her next meal, starts talking about breakfast and eventually after showers we head out to scout up some food. If we're just hanging out in Chiang Mai or Udon, we'll do some errands or maybe go for a short ride somewhere. If we're in travel mode we'll pack and check out of our hotel to hit the road to the next place. Pretty soon it's lunch time. If we're not driving, afternoons are spent reading, napping, writing blog stuff, processing photos, gossiping with friends, joking around with Nut. Evening brings another discussion about where we'll take dinner and what we'll eat. While often fun, it can be slightly hum-drum too. Living day to day in hotels has made me homesick for our little place in Banglamphu and the great food in our neighborhood.

Retirement has been a mixed bag for me, mostly good but sometimes causing me wonder what my life at age 68 is, or should be, about. I suppose it's that way for many retirees. If you have income adequate for your chosen lifestyle and you're good at keeping yourself occupied, it can be a good life. If you have a propensity for self doubt or feelings of inadequacy, it can be not so good. When you're in harness and going to work everyday we dream of retirement and escape from the schedule imposed on us by job and responsibilities. But when those responsibilities end the reality is sometimes quite different.

Usually as I drift from day to day I'm happy enough and riding the bike out in the country always invigorates my spirit. I try to explain to Nut what this desire to ride is all about but she, imprisoned on her uncomfortable rear seat perch, doesn't quite get it. Driving the bike is fun, riding in back, not so much, especially if the road is bumpy. Usually she endures quite well. Yesterday I even heard her singing a tune as we cruised along, but sometimes the bouncing and swerving make her headachey and even physically ill. She's a good traveling companion though and I'm thankful for her normally cheery presence.

So, off we go to the next town on the loop, Mae Chaem. I've been running ads on the Internet to sell the Phantom and now have a few inquiries and a possible sale awaiting our return to Chiang Mai. I had wanted to wait to sell it until this Mae Hong Son loop was complete but we're also getting anxious to get back to Bangkok. The old Phantom is running great but we both want to upgrade to the CBR250 and the best prices for that purchase are in Bangkok. Best to sell it quick and get on with the plan. And too, my new front teeth will get installed in a week or so in Bangkok and even though I have gotten quite used to my jack-o-lantern look at this point, I've completely disowned those damn flippers that look good but feel like a plastic shoehorn in my mouth, despicable things that they are. I haven't worn them for weeks.

Not to change the subject but changing the subject: I'm reading a terrific book, Jupiter's Travels, four years around the world on a Triumph, by Ted Simon. His 1974 trip was an amazing accomplishment, all the more so because when he did it Africa and South America were in political foment. And he rode a Triumph! DOH! His travel commentary is by turns entertaining and riveting. The man writes like a dream, his metaphors are masterful, his truthfulness about his own shortcomings and fears is to be admired and emulated. This is a motorcycling classic and the best of that genre I've read. Highly recommended, whether you happen to be a rider or not.

These ramblings are terminally dull by comparison. By way of justification I want to say I write because I enjoy writing and because someday I might look back on these journeys with a wistful eye and be able to imagine myself still able to do things I take for granted today. That means I write for myself. I also write for my family and friends, so they know what's up with me and where I happen to be in the world. All bloggers ask themselves certain questions from time to time I reckon: Why do I write? Who reads what I write? What difference would it make if I didn't write?

And then this one: Why do I ask myself these questions anyhow?

Hah. There you go.