Sunday, September 30, 2012

Trip to Nan and Lake Phayao

We made our first of the season multi-day motorcycle trip last week. We drove over to Nan from Chiang Mai on a cloudy, cool and sometimes rainy day. The rain is lasting longer than I expected although of course I did arrive Thailand earlier than I ever have before. But as I keep pointing out, the rain is warm and while they're intense the squalls are generally brief so one can simply get the rain jackets on and drive through it. After a few miles the rain will stop and before long the roads and our lower bodies are dry again. It's a gorgeous ride over and back: Routes 118 north and 120 east out of Chiang Mai to Phayao and then Routes 1251 and 1091 from Phayao to Nan are all smooth, twisty, and for the most part lightly traveled roads that are great fun on a bike. The 180 mile (290 km) trip took us about 6-7 hours including several stops for coffee and lunch.
Along Route 4024 on the way to Nan (N19.09715, E99.97474)
Green hills near Nan
Wat Phra That Chaa Hang (N18.758189, E100.791580)
Next day we visited a famous ancient temple near Nan, the Wat Phra That Chaa Hang (วัดพระธาตุแช่แห้ง) built in 1353, which is a Year of the Rabbit (Bpii Tao ~ ปีเถาะ). Nut wanted to visit and make a small offering because she was  born during the Year of the Rabbit as well (1963).
I never buy souvenirs but I couldn't resist getting this little golden rabbit for Nut to put with her other collectibles of a religious nature. Buddhists have some interesting customs and beliefs but trying to get others to believe as they do isn't one of them. Ya gotta love that!
We spent two nights in Nan and then rather than going directly back home decided to split the return trip in half with a stopover at Phayao and its famous lake, Kwan Phayao. The reason to come to Nan is for the motorcycling — there's not much else going on — but being as it's still rainy we decided to make it a short visit. I always enjoy riding around the lake and that was another part of the motivation to visit.
Kwan Phayao, west shore (N19.18832, E99.85599)
Fisherman, Lake Phayao west shore
Just after sunset, Lake Phayao
The ride back to Chiang Mai was uneventful and was again punctuated by rain squalls. The CBR250 turned in 90 mpg overall, pretty good gas mileage considering it was all 2-up riding and involved many hills. We ride slow, rarely exceeding 50 mph, but that seems plenty fast on these curvy highways in our area.
On the road to Phayao

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Riding around Chiang Mai

As it turns out I'm writing this on the day after my birthday. It's still my birthday back in the states but here we've gone ahead to the 25th. I'm moved that so many friends have, through the "magic" of Facebook and the Internet, wished me well. Say what you will about the pervasiveness of the Internet— it does offer an easier alternative at birthdays to actually putting something in the mail. Thanks to all.

Nut and I took a short ride to the north of Chiang Mai the other day. We were planning to do the Samoeng Loop,  a favorite ride of ours that I've written about previously but rain at the high point of the trip where the road rises to cross a ridge of Doi Suthep turned us around. We skirted the showers by going north to a little coffee shop we know instead. The area around Chiang Mai is dotted with small gardens and large, rice paddies, flower farms, tea and coffee plantations and rubber tree farms. And at this time of year the rice paddies are so green it almost hurts the eyes.The day was cloudy, making for a pleasant ride and as a bonus, offering relief from the heat. It also added something nice to the lighting in photos below. (Click them for a full size view.)

Along Route 3009 north of Chiang Mai

The little shop, Pankret Coffee, is on the road to Pai. (N19.11530, E98.78496). It's situated in a cool spot and the owners have put a lot of effort into making it a perfect setting for an iced latte and a little something to nibble on.

Nut & I at Pankret Coffee

We've been riding in the area of Nan for the past couple of days and will head over to Payao after breakfast. From there we'll go back to Chiang Mai. The ride here was wonderful even though it was punctuated with rain several times. The nice thing about the rain in Thailand as I've often observed, is that it doesn't hurt you. We simply don our cheapo rain jackets and ride for a few miles until it stops. The rain storms up north are usually brief. Many folks just find a nice big tree overhanging the shoulder and wait it out. Yes, our feet and legs get wet but almost as soon as the rain stops, drying begins. And it's warm outside. Even the rain is warm so it's no biggie to drive on through. Besides, Nut hates to wait. She's always saying, let's go, let's go.

Now she's bugging me to go for breakfast. "Okay", I say, "let's go." ;-D

Nut, the object of my affections

Friday, September 14, 2012

We visit the DirtFish Rally School

I'm back in Chiang Mai and it feels good to be here. Yesterday evening I was sitting on our little balcony looking out as the clouds swirled around in the falling light and thinking about how comfortable I feel in Thailand. Of course, I realize that a lot of that comfort is because of Nut. She is not only a fantastic girlfriend but my interface to this wonderful country.

I guess being here sort of reminds me of how there used to be actual neighborhoods in the U.S. when I was a boy. In my neighborhood there were mom and pop stores on practically every corner. I can count from memory at least a dozen such stores in Sloan, the small Buffalo suburb (1 sq mile) where I went to high school. Sadly, all that has been changed forever with the advent of shopping malls and big box stores. Thailand still has that small neighborhood feel even in a city as big as Chiang Mai.

I got here early this year and the rainy season is still exerting its effects on the weather. Today is bright and sunny but it's been quite cloudy and rainy for the past week. Nut and I rode the bike to a popular viewpoint above Chiang Mai the other day where I snapped this view of the city below.

View of Chiang Mai from Route 1004 lookout

I had wanted to write this entry about the time I spent with Tuli and Harper but didn't get around to it when I was still in the states. Earlier in the summer Tuli found a good deal on a short, introductory course in rally driving and had signed up for it. He asked if I would be interested in coming along to hang with Harper and I said, yes, I love a road trip, so on the 29th of last month he and Harper and I set off for Snoqualmie, Washington where the DirtFish Rally School is located. (N47.53774 W121.81143)

Everyone we talked with at the school is a car enthusiast, as you might expect, and it was a fun experience. The full length courses are pricey and beyond the reach of most normal folks and I learned that maintaining the fleet of Subaru Impreza WRX STi rally cars is very expensive as well. If I recall correctly, Tuli got his one-afternoon short course for about $300 making it a relatively affordable adventure. However a full 3-day course will set you back about three grand. Another student, car-enthusiast we talked with said he thought being close to Microsoft is the reason a school like this one can turn a profit.

Following are some scenes from the school and the course. Some of the cars are rare, one of a kind rally cars — one we looked at is worth upwards of $300 thousand dollars — and are there on loan from their owners.

All Wheel Drive Subarus are justifiably popular on Alaska's icy winter roads but I was surprised to learn just how popular the Impreza is with the rally crowd. Apparently when Subaru introduced the turbocharged AWD Impreza WRX back in the early 90s it took the rally world by storm and revolutionized the sport. These cars start out as stock vehicles but are worked over extensively inside and out before they can be safely and competitively raced. The 2.0 liter engine in this one, WRC99, built for driver John Burns, puts out 300 hp and 480 ft-lb of torque. The interiors are stripped and rebuilt with carbon-fiber panels, roll cages, electronics, fire protection equipment, and more.

Subaru Impreza World Rally Car WRC99
Cockpit of WRC99
Here is a Ford Focus custom built for driver Colin McRae. Its specs are similar to the Impreza above: it sports a turbo-charged 300 hp, 2.0 liter engine and AWD and a ton of customizations.
Ford Focus World Rally Car

The cars at the school, while not as highly modified as these, nevertheless are powerful racing machines putting out 300 hp like the ones above. When I was in high school the Pontiac GTO was a popular muscle car — we used to say GTO stood for Gas Tires and Oil. These cars are like that: they go through motor oil and special soft-tread dirt track tires rather quickly. They use a brand of tire I never heard of, dMack Grippas,  that cost about $150 apiece. The Impreza's turbocharger is oil-cooled which we were told makes frequent oil changes a requirement. Tuli's instructor told us the tires last about 3 days and the oil gets changed at about the same interval. They use multi-viscosity Mobil-1 5W-50 synthetic oil exclusively in all their vehicles. The gravel plays havoc with disk brake rotors as well. There is a full scale auto shop on the premises to handle repairs, modifications and maintenance.
Tuli with the instructor on the "skid pad"
Students start out learning how to handle the cars during a turn on the "skid pad". Driving an AWD car through sliding turns on dirt is very different from what Tuli is used to. He's done some sport driving in his rear-wheel drive 1995 BMW 325i but that was on pavement. The techniques needed to run an AWD automobile at speed through turns on loose gravel are introduced in this first phase of the course. In all cases, an instructor takes the car and student through the course a few times explaining the techniques of left-foot braking and weight transfer, hand brake turns, etc. Then he turns the car over to the student for several runs through the same turns using those skills.

Tuli driving the slalom course
Special dirt track "Grippa" tires
Later they drive on a slalom course and then finally a small race track, the "Boneyard", with quick turns that included a couple of tight hairpins. The idea is to take what you've learned in the early lessons and put it into practice during a simulated racing experience. I think it's fair to say Tuli enjoyed the course immensely. And Harper loved the microphone equipped helmet his dad got to use.

Two handsome boys

We took the opportunity to visit some old friends while we were in Washington. We stopped for a night at Dody's, an old friend from Homer, and at Peggy and Dan's, folks I know from the years I lived in Boston back in the 70s.

By the time we got back to Eugene three days later we had driven over 1,000 miles. Harper had been good as gold on the long trip and we had had our fair share of road trip snacks and Starbucks coffee. The DirtFish school has a website at if you want to check it out. Oh yeah, and you might find it fun to take a look at this YouTube video of a crazy guy named Ken Block putting some of these same driving techniques to practice in San Francisco.