Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Laos. A shortened trip, but a fun one.

On the Mekong river is the my writing place, and more precisely on a passenger boat taking me the 170 miles upstream from Luang Prabang to Houei Xai over 2 days, overnighting in Pak Beng, making my way back alone to Chiang Mai. These great river boats carry a mixture of about 60 locals and Farangs (as we foreigners are called) the length of the river. In my case to the Thai border. The Mekong is a huge trade, hydro-electrical power source and irrigation artery for Tibet, China, Burma, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
The stream is strong and the currents eddy all over the place, which the captains have the boats dancing across with deft skill and confidence, riding rapids like canoeist whilst they dodge the sandbanks and rocks that populate the river.
It is a journey of continual natural delight


This is our boat docked for the night at Pak Beng

The river bank is constantly in use with locals going about their day to day tasks

We were going along at about 10mph, according to my sat nav, these speed boats belt along at at least double that speed. Must be fun, but every guide book says not to risk it.

Susana has gone back to Goa a few days earlier than originally planned. We had a great time and she is a fun companion, however what was suppose to be a 2 week bike tour wasn't, and we found that milling around with multitudes of tourists doing the tourist 'thing' without the independence of our own wheels  somewhat depressing, so we just decided that it is best to cut our losses and get back the the places where we needed to be. In her case the girl looking after her boutique had become ill, meaning it was closed for  important parts of the day, which in high season was an understandable worry. In my case having Batty out of action and the trip in a state of limbo was vexing, so an early return to Chiang Mai was a relief.

We had arrived in Vientiene, the capital, in the morning and it felt to us like it was not really the place to spend much time. Although it had it's charms, they did not engage,  so we bought a couple of overnight coach tickets to Luang Probang.
It gave us the afternoon to kill, so we found a sushi bar that appealed after the delicious but consistent South East Asian fayre. By this stage I was getting in tune with Susana's joie de vivre, and numerous bottles of LaoBeer found their way onto the table. A few hours later we glided  back onto the street and found a massage parlour to ease the afternoon away.

The coach trip was fine for lucky me as the sleeping pills did their trick and a near 7 hour sleep took care of much of the 12 hr journey, alas some did not do so well and there were vows never to do it again from certain quarters.

Dormitories on wheels. 45 of us.

It was such a good idea as Luang Probang turned out to be one of the most charming towns I had encountered. Although geared for visitors, there was such a lovely relaxed atmosphere set off by heavenly architecture, unchanged and beautifully maintained from the time of French colonialism that fused mostly local tradition with just a hint of European. The streets were clean, no neon lights, little touting and lots of local smiles. If one was to look for a snap shot of the best of market driven communism, it would be hard to better.

Our Guest House, Sayo.

Susana on a bamboo bridge

View from the central Wat (temple) on the hill that overlooks Luang Probang

Part of the main street

The busy part of the main street

That said we were surprised by the high prices that were demanded there. Hiring a push bike was $5 a day, 5 x the Thai rate, a scooter was $20. This scotched plans to take off into the hills for 4 days, not because we could not afford it, we hated the idea that we were supporting a racket.
We spent 4 days going off on walks, doing an elephant ride (not really what I came on this trip for) and each day enjoying great long lunches.

Doing the tourist thing

The village of Hoify, that we came across after 3 hours walking up a track.

The best dinners was in the food market, where we grazed on devine spring rolls, local sausages and the pinnacle of culinary delight; barbecued Mekong river perch. Twice we went back for a bamboo plate of this, the juiciest, most succulent heaven that mother nature has presented me in a long time.

The Mekong perch
Our last day was to be a ferry ride across the river to explore a temple that we spotted in the distance. As chance would have it we were corralled  on to a boat with a couple from Argentina, Josephina and Pablo, who had hired the boat for a couple of hours to potter up the river. Initially they were going to drop us off on the other side, but we soon were chatting away like old friends and they kindly let us join them for their trip. This evolved into a liquid lunch. I hope to catch up with them next year. Pablo's family are ranchers and a chance to see them again and perhaps witness their way of life would be fabulous.
That evening we celebrated our short holiday with a full body massage, which only scored 4 or 5 out of 10. Just weak and lacked any restorative energy. Then to a good French restaurant that had snails and carpaccio which with a couple of bottles of burgundy prepared us for clubbing LP style. It took a couple of goes but we did find the Doa Fa nightclub. The best bit was watching the sazzy lady DJ, who had everyone going crazy, she was like a high priestess with a sniffle.

Susana on stage with the High Priestess

It was meant to be a photo, but the camera was on film mode...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Failing new engine, Lady boys, horizons unlimited meeting, breaking the rules

 It has been a frustrating couple of weeks since I posted last. There have been lots of fun moments, interspersed with a fair number of worries and problems. With the new engine fitted in Nepal, I really felt that we were set for a good long run of pretty trouble-free motoring, alas this has not been the case. It seems that I'm going through a sticky patch as far as my chosen transport is concerned.

Tomorrow I leave for Laos with Susana, who has been very understanding about this lack of transport, but in the end the bike is not fixed and the days were beginning to eat into her holiday time, so it seems best to leave the bike behind, with the diesel mechanics that we have found, to hopefully come up with some answers. Unfortunately an hour before I'm wrote this, I had been told that I need to  extend the Thailand Visa in order to extend the motorcycle temporary import licence. Our flight is at 6 o'clock tomorrow morning and I cannot do it in time, so when I leave Thailand eventually, there will be a fine, imprisonment, or it may not be noticed….I have past caring.

I last wrote from the Burmese border at Mai Sae as part of this incredible route I was taking around the north of the country. They have to be some of the best biking roads in the world, not only for the beautiful landscapes, but mile after mile of near brand-new road, fantastically cambered with unrelenting cornering joy. It was in Mae Sae that I noticed the rear sprocket teeth were becoming worryingly shallow, and the need to change the sprockets and chain was pressing.  A call to Joe, a renowned German bike mechanic based in Chiang Mai for the last 20 years, gave hope that he would be able to replicate the sprocket etc. It was a days run there, which on arrival proved to be a bit of a red herring, as the sprocket was incorporated into the brake drum  and could not be bodged. 
Luckily there was a room at Riders Corner to stay and from there arrangements were made with Henry to  courier the spare parts over.

This gave me 4 days to kill, so I tighten the chain even more and set off on the remaining leg of the Northern circuit.  On the way to Pai, I went to the Tiger Kingdom, which was recommended as an attraction worth seeing. I'm not very sure about zoos and wild animals in captivity, and my confusion on the matter was only confounded. Here were these gorgeous animals that we were allowed to effectively play with, as one would a pussycat. They were all part of a breeding program and they earn their keep by having their tummies rubbed by literally hundreds of people on a daily basis. By the time they are 2 years old this stops and they are then sent to other zoos around Thailand. I would not go there again, but accept that for these animals to escape extinction, their fairground attraction type life is a necessary evil.

One of the many great guys I met at riders corner is Dave. He had warned me that he had got stuck in Pia for 2 weeks on his 1st visit, such is the delight of the place. Dave has been traveling off and on for a few years, paying his way as a web and app designer. A perfect job to have for this lifestyle.  He is also very generous with his time helping incompetents like me set up their GPS etc. His latest adventure is, which involve taking a group to Cambodia, buy up some scooters, ride them around for 2 weeks and then sell them, giving the proceeds to charity...what a happy combination of motive and fun.

Partying at Rider's Corner. L to R, Chris, Yannick, Heiko, self and Dave

 Although I enjoyed Pia  for a couple of nights, my timetable did not allow for longer.  I did go for a short drive around on my day off, and it was there that I really realised that I had some problems. There was one particular hill that I started going up but Batty conked out. I turned around  and went back home.

The next day was a continuum of stunning roads in gorgeous surroundings… have I got the message across that this place is motorcycling heaven yet?....  The trouble is that the hills only got yet steeper and I ended up having to be towed on 2 occasions up the hills by trucks. As chance would have it I met these fellow bikers from Germany, who were on a 3 week holiday, and had hired bikes to do these circuits. They love it so much that once they have finished it over 4 days, they promptly turned round and did it the other way round. Anyway they were kind enough to pull me up one hill, and then stay with me whilst we went to find somewhere to stay. We had a cracking evening together and I left early the next morning praying that the bike would get back to town. It did just, but she did not feel at all happy.

 The next day I changed the sprocket and chain. Then tried to get her going, which I and many of the other generous helping hands could not do. The biking community is a remarkable brotherhood and in particular Stephan from France spent a day with me stripping down the engine, then using his infinitely more knowledge than mine to try and crack the puzzle. The evening ended with failure, but new friends abundant.

 I pushed Batty to Joe's workshop the next morning. It was about a kilometre away.  Tom was looking after the place as Joe was away. He very kindly let me work one bike by myself there and had me check a whole lot of other things as the motor was stripped down.  Tom is in fact retired, but has a lifetime in engineering and motorcycle maintenance. Even with his experience we met with a blank.  So that is where we are now, the bike is with the diesel specialists, and we will see what they come up with.

The whole reason for being in Chiang Mai  now was for the Horizons Unlimited Asian meeting. (Link to itinerary). This took place on Friday and Saturday and there were probably only 50 of us who had descended from around the world to attend. It was such a rich gathering of  adventurers, combined with great stories from the presenters of various exploits that it had a near religious atmosphere.

Staying in a campsite in the beautiful Doi Phu Ikha National Park

Out side Rider's Corner

There is a print shop near Rider's Corner and at last managed to get some stickers made up showing my max speed. Hopefully it will lead to a bit of understanding from frustrated followers...
With one of the highly engaged Tigers
A rather forlorn and lone lion at Tiger Kingdom
My hut at the resort in Pia

With Franz, Andre, Nicole and Susanna my German saviors at a Karaoke Bar
Tom at Joe's Bike Team
Susana in a valley we discovered on a ride out on a hired scooter from Chiang Mai
This morning I was taken up onto the roof terrace for an hour-long stretching and training routine. Susana does this all the time, and is super fit. Bending herself at angles that defy anything that this stiff old body can manage. Apparently this is the morning routine for the next 10 days.  I'm sure it will do me good, but a little bit of gloss has come off the idea of a holiday in Lao.

Suzana and a couple of beauties she found at the Night Bizarre in Chiang Mai
Last night we had a most enjoyable drink and then dinner with a couple whose names I cannot give.  I have been banned from mentioning them on the Internet, as they do not want anyone to know that they are here. Of course that is fair enough, but how can I really talk about their delightful company, they're interesting wild and fun lives and the huge amount of good things they do for other people  without qualifying it with their names? I was given their name and number by one of our artists, the irrepressible and magnificent Grey Jolliffe, and what a great connection and was.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year to you. A Jupiter's Traveller and a failed love story.

Wishing you a very Happy, fun and exciting New Year.

( I had another problem with the software called Feedburner, that emails the blog updates, so I am sorry to those that are getting this one so quickly after the last one. In case anyone else is using Feedburner and getting a blockage in the system, this is what I have learnt...DO NOT drag and drop an image onto your doing so you ramp up the size of the feed to way beyond the 576k allowed, and thus stops the email broadcast. You have to import images either from Picasa, or load it through the blogger "choose file' option... )

I write from  a small town in Northern Thailand called Pua, 4 days into a couple of weeks touring around this part of Thailand. I borrowed parts from a few biking companies' itineraries that I found on the web, on the assumption that they will only go where the roads are great and the scenery stunning...I have not been disappointed for a moment. The roads here are as good as any in the West, and have taken me through simply gorgeous surrounds. This combined with the lovely natured Thais, great climate and delicious food makes it easily understandable why so many westerners are choosing to live here.

I took this as sadly deforestation seems to be scarring this beautiful landscape. Several National Parks are at least protecting large parts, but even they are not immune from wood poachers.
Waterfalls are pretty common here...and what a great thing to be abundant.
 I am not going to write a moment more until I tell you that, much to my delight and honour, I have joined the ranks of the 'Jupiter's Travellers". I don't suppose that means anything to most, but to us who are doing these somewhat eccentric journeys, it gives a great qualification.
As a moment of background, nearly 40 years ago Ted Simon completed a round the world journey on a Triumph T100 500cc motorcycle, over about 4 years. He was then a journalist writing for the Sunday Times. He wrote a book called Jupiter's Travels that has probably been the greatest inspirer of dreams into reality for would-be motorcycle long distance travellers, and I include most notably Messrs Boreman and McGregor. It was certainly a key cog in the mechanism that is Vegibike. My dream started when I read it in the early 80s. Not only did he do that trip, he also did it again 25 years on at the age of 70 and wrote Dreaming of Jupiter which I enjoyed immensely crossing Iran.
The Link
To quote what a Jupiter's Traveller should be:

"Jupiter's Travellers are people who seek to understand the beauties, mysteries and tragedies of our world, and their place in it, through personal adventure. They are inspired and motivated to develop their observations and insights into something of value for the rest of the world to share, whatever their medium of expression might be." 

So that puts a welcome, if not daunting, challenge to this trip....

A big thank you to Ted, Iain and all the Jupiter Team.

I flew into Chiang Mai as oppose to Bangkok, wanting to start the South East Asia leg as far North as possible. It also meant that clearing customs was a breeze...apparently Batty was the first bike they had in there that they could remember. The fact that they did not have the right paperwork for the job slowed things up for a small while, but in the end they just said come back before I leave and they would have it all ready for me. So friendly and trusting.

The last time I was here was on a holiday that I have had to struggle with for over 20 years and regrettably it is a story of stupidity and youthful arrogance in no uncertain measure.  A year or so before that trip I had had a short relationship with a very good friend, and although it had ended we remained close, and her beauty only grew. She and a girlfriend had taken themselves off on a backpacking trip around the world and we planned to meet in Thailand, corresponding via the lovely old method of Poste restante. It started badly...well in a fun way...I had booked the cheapest flight I could and in those days it was with Gulf Air. I use to hate flying, and still do, but what with fear of flying courses and lots of it, I now manage OK. It did mean that the then 'drink as much as you can' option was taken up by this jumble of nerves passenger with enthusiasm. My neighbour was a chap the same age, and we started getting a long well, and the hours to the first stop in Bahrain was quite a party. Then in the transit terminal, he asked me if I wanted a 'smoke', being then very partial to all that, I readily agreed... The Middle East is now, but even more so then,  a strict and unforgiving approach to such matters and a term in a jail would have been a light sentence. Somehow we got away with it, but I shudder when I think of the idiocy of it.
There they were ( I am keeping names out of this...those who know know, those who don't, wont...sorry) at the airport to collect a very hungover and sleep deprived traveler and off we went to the coach station in Bangkok to overnight it to Chiang Mai. Normally I can sleep on coaches, but not was so very exciting being there as my first trip beyond Europe, tingled with the joy of seeing someone who I had let my fantasies engage in speculation of rekindlement. Then what does this numpkin do...he starts a sort of surreptitious flirtation with her friend...that over a few days ends up...well I will leave that to imaginations. It was not of any significance emotionally to her or I, just one of those things...and I thought we had got away with it.
Alas on the train south to the beaches, the girls had a 'chat' and out came the story, and my goose was cooked as far as any lingering embers were concerned with .......I nearly said her name.

Back here now, that hatchet is buried, and I am loving it. When I get back to Chiang Mai, there is a Horizons Unlimited meeting at the Rider's Bar, which is an annual event for overland bikers and local riders. I have met a few on my travels that are converging there, so it will be fun. I am also being joined by Susana, who I met in Goa, as she is bravely boarding Batty for a 2 week loop around Laos.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Will it really come down to Bribary?

I always seem to be writing from Kathmandu, it must be at a junction of happenings during the last few weeks. This time I am staying in the Kathmandu Guest House, which is one of the original hotels in the city, designed for foreigners. I am mainly here because it is very close to the shippers who are boxing up Batty tomorrow to ship onto Chang Mai in Thailand. Would I stay again…probably not. Although a little more comfy than the general abode I choose, it is large and unfriendly, which for triple the amount knocks it right down the scale of value as far I am concerned.

It is funny how the memory of pain goes. Although no physical pain resulted in the 2 weeks getting a new engine for Batty, but mental pain of frustration, uncertainties and feelings of helpless in a game being played that I had no clue of the rules.

The engine arrived in Kathmandu 4 days after leaving Henry's work shop near Bristol…all very efficient. Raju had taken the old engine out and was ready to go, so all we needed was UPS to deliver the last leg to Pokhara. Various conversations between Raju and the UPS guy indicated a problem with the importation of a whole  new engine and his business not being registered. This prompted a decision to fly to Kathmandu, show my carnet (a passport for vehicles) and pay some duty. That was done and I left being told it would be there the next day…all good, a bit of hassle, but only 3 days lost.

Next day no engine. The chief customs man had said that he wanted proof that the bike was in the country and in Raju's workshop. This involved going to the police station and getting a chief to sign a document to that effect and sending via UPS to the office in KTM. This took 3 days for some inexplicable reason to get to the customs chief…then he wanted the carnet again. You can imagine that by this stage I was seething until suddenly I realised he must be after a bung/bribe/sweetener. For some funny reason I was more relaxed having worked that out. Although the whole idea is abhorrent to me, if it was the only way, it was going to have to be. And in person I was going to deliver those poison notes, lest other sticky fingers wanted part of the action, so another trip to KTM. One more early morning but delayed flight, had me in a UPS van heading to the customs building near the airport by lunchtime. I had stopped off at an ATM and got out about £100 thinking that it would take somewhere between £50-£100 to wrest the engine out of their clasp.

Armed with the carnet and a few practiced phrases like ' there a special service I can buy to help speed up the process....' or '...I am sorry this engine is causing you all this extra work, could I make a contribution to your office party as a thank you?..." for the Customs chief, we went to see him. He took the carnet and then his huge book of rules and regs and started quoting things, written in Nepali, like a new replacement engine imported for a vehicle on a carnet had to have the old engine shipped out of the country. That was plain ridiculous, who would require such a stupid thing when the engine was completely useless. What to do I asked, waiting for the cue…he said just write and sign on the carnet that you will send the old engine out of Nepal…so I did, 'OK, now you can take your engine' he said. In disbelief I slowly took my hand out of the pocket, leaving the bung where it was and shook his hand. It all took no more than 20 minutes.

I still don't really know how it took so much to do so little, but I am sure that had I not gone back again and seen him myself, it could have dragged on yet further.

It was too late to get back by flight so I booked into a cheap hostel and got a ticket on the 7am bus back to Pokhara the next morning. The bus was actually much better than I had feared. 7 hours of catching up on the latest Dessert Island Disk, and From our own Correspondent etc podcasts and chatting to Laila.

Laila half lives in California and half lives in Pokhara. She has a bar/restaurant in both places, both called 'Laila'. I had seen it along the street, but not visited it. She was a great bus neighbour and we covered all sorts of conversational ground. The hours and miles fell away and ended with a promise to come and sample her hospitality the next day.

The engine beat me back to Raju and he was all set to work on it the next day. Henry had sent me detailed notes on how to best fit it in, which I had to read to Raju very slowly…I was suspicious before but it confirmed that Raju was illiterate, not that it took away from his mechanical skills.

Raju working late with candle light and torch...power cuts abound here
3 days later he had it all fixed up, a diesel mechanic pal had helped and they did a great job tuning it and seeing me back on the road. I think Raju probably managed to extract from me about double or maybe quadruple what a local would have been charged, and it irked me a little, but in the end he had run around like crazy, had useful connections in the police and worked long hours to see me right...I was happy that he had the option of not needing to work again for a month or so.

The new engine is more powerful and feels great. I am still running her in so it will be 1000 miles before normal use resumes, but it feels great to be back on board. 3 weeks had passed since she went into Raju's place with a suspect noise.

So what does one do hanging around in a fine town like Pokhara with lots of shops, bars, and new friends abundant for 2 weeks? Well in my case I was blessed by a few things, not least the friendship of Jess and Al. Regular lunches and suppers with introductions to some of their friends. An invitation to a Fancy Dress party at Maya Devi that was as high octane a party I have been to in a long time, ending for me at about 1am and a lovely stumbling moonlit, hour long walk home.

It was Jess's birthday, and what a cake, that Daisy was greatly taken were we all
Jess and Harry. I had employed a tailor to try and create a Hawaii meets the Sub Continent type shirt...a near miss

Rachel Baker with her winning costume...These are also her photos that she kindly donated.

Devi's Falls, a plunging cascade an hours walk outside Pokhara
Otherwise I took walks to nearby sites, evenings at the Bullet Basecamp meeting fellow travellers, supping with my landlord Ganesh and his charming philandering pal, of the "…it's alright if you always let your wife know, then she gets use to it and knows that it is not serious…" school of reason. A couple of early drinks with Laila in her bar and promise to come by her Californian place when I am passing next year. I also managed to trouble the office a fair amount with various web developments and financal stuff…just when they were all revving up for the Christmas party that I was very sorry to miss.

Batty's Back...sporting a Chrismassy new flywheel casing
Ganesh on the left, my landlord for 3 weeks and his naughty pal
Home for those 3 weeks
Outside the Hotel Lotus Inn, not a bad spot for my circumstances.
Raju and Ginette at the Sewa home for orphans that Ginette founded. She is also the co owner with Nathan of the Bullet Basecamp. 30 kids have a home that would otherwise be in peril.
One of the projects Sewa does is grow loads of mushrooms that they sell which helps towards their goal of self sustainability.
My favourite street food, Pani Puri. A potato curry popped into crisp balls and then lased with a little honey mix and then a lemon based liquor (non alcholic) poured on top. A very good snack, first introduced to me by Sophie.

A interview for Octane Magazine. An Entrepreneurs Organisation publication. Photo: S.Dutton
An edited text, but a welcome and flattering inclusion