Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Going nowhere fast. Chiang Mai, Bridge over the River Kwai, next stop New Zealand

Chiang Mai is a lovely city and has many fine people living there, many of whom have been friends to could easily make it a home. However I was stranded here for 6 weeks (off and on) and it was beginning to get to me. Being there of one's own choice would have been great, but not by dint of mechanical failures trapping me, and not knowing how long it would be before I could get away.

We thought we had fixed the problem with the new piston and it all felt very good. Plans for the great drive south were made for the morning. Off I set at 9 am bidding farewell to Rider's Corner, which had been home for much of that time.
12 hours later and 200 km south the engine blew again. Exactly the same as before.
The only thing it can be is this engine, the new 13hp one changed in Nepal, does not work with veg oil, unlike the first one. What to do, fix it again and abandon the vegibike idea and just use Diesel?  I could probably still use a small amount of Veg Oil, say 10%, and claim some use. Or to try and get another 10hp engine like the original. There could be extensive problems with customs again, as in Nepal, and I am not keen to go through that circus again. A bit of a dilemma, and a crisis in the camp.

Re-tracking a bit, over the last few weeks I have been blessed by the support of George and Ann. I met them before the Laos trip when they collected the bike and since then George has worked with me on the bike, whilst Ann, being Thai, has done our translating and cooking fabulous dinners etc.
We tried a couple of mechanics, but in truth, what with telephone help from Henry in the UK, George and I got Batty going again. UPS did not help by taking a week to get the new piston out to us, 4 days in the UK before even getting airborne would you believe it, so much for the promised 3 days.
George and Anne

Our 2 mechanic pals, who helped show us what we already knew and a fair number of wrong diagnoses.
Socially it has been fun, Shelley is a fellow Jupiter's Traveler and in CM before heading home to Canada. She and her fella Patrick sold their BMW machines in Mongolia having ridden there from Germany and traded them for Honda 125cc Dreams that they bought in Malaysia. These bikes are found all around the world. Reliable, economical and can potter along at 50-60mph all day. Funnily enough when I was thinking about this trip and what was the most Eco friendly bike possible, it was one of these machines that I was going to go for, had I not met Batty. No regrets of course.....
We have spent a few evenings together along with Jannick , Patrick's brother and their father, who was out seeing them.

James, Sascha and Kerstin
Jannick's Birthday at RC
At Rider's Corner one keeps one meeting new faces and big journey making bikers; James and Cat on their way to Australia but troubled by Cat's broken collar bone in an accident, and then their KTM breaking down, Sasha and Kirsten who had just been in New Zealand before shipping to Bangkok , giving me lots of GPS maps.
Probably one of the most recognized faces in the world of bike travelers, 5 times around the world, Dr Gregory W Frazier, is a regular there and says he will be featuring Batty in an article he regularly writes for a US bike magazine.
A book I have just finished reading was initiated, researched and edited by Greg. It tells the story of the almost forgotten, first man to ride around the world on a motorcycle 100 years ago exactly. Carl Stearns Clancy was 22 years old, and started in Ireland and ended in his native New York. He did ship quite a lot, as there were simply no roads in much of the world, but he did cross Europe, north Africa, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China, Japan and the the most difficult of all, the ride across the US. He was writing for a magazine, so it was well documented. His bike, a Henderson, was one if the top makes in those days and a competitor to Harley Davidson. The irony is that he hardly broke down, what problems he had were from falls or altitude. Not sure what progress that means we have made in 100 years, I know I have had my struggles (largely to do with trying to make a diesel engine run on veg oil, and my lack of experience in such matters) however even the latest BMWs and Hondas etc have caused their owners much angst with breakdowns.
Clancy was never to ride a bike again...

Back to recent times...Batty's tales of woe do not end there alas. By the time we ( a local mechanic and I) had stripped the engine down again to take out the piston ( got it down to 120 mins by this stage) I knew it was going to be the piston rings gummed up with sooty goo. Luckily we found that Isuzu share the same piston rings, so we were able too get going again by nightfall.
Gooey mess of jammed in piston rings that negated any compression

The next morning I set off at 7am and did a long day to Kanchanaburi, 300 miles south. All seemed fine until I pulled up at the end of the day, only to see oil coming from the head gasket area. Blown head gasket I thought. A 2 hour job for the morning...

When the morning came I was to discover that it was much worse as 2 cylinder head studs had been stripped. Fretting and despairing wasn't getting me very far, so I went off to see the Bridge over the River Kwai for which this place is famed. I was thinking that I would find it a very poignant and upsetting place, but in fact the part that I saw was so commercialized and the accounts of what happened masked by a multitude of vendors and a very faded museum, that it did little to move me as I thought it would. Watching the film does a better job.

The rebuilt bridge after the Allies bombed it at the end of the war.

What can I say....this is what the train looks like now. I guess it means a lot of people come here and see the horrors of war, albeit through tourist eyes.

The remains of the original bridge that the POWs built and on which the film is based.

Meanwhile awful thoughts were running through my head. Was this the end of the trip with Batty? Had I had enough of what was now 2 months of engine problems? Could I send Batty back to the UK and get a conventional bike and carry on the trip without the important (to me) angle of doing it in a carbon light way?

On the walk back from the bridge I passed a bike mechanic's shop with Harleys outside and just thought I would see if the chap could help. He said to bring the bike over in fluent sign language, that bettered my own.
I did so and immediately Nam was on to the problem and started re tapping the treads. He seemed very together and kept a very clean workshop and I quickly trusted him. Soon a couple of Auzzy brothers, Jamie and Chris, stopped for a chat. They love all forms of vehicles and do a lot of their own engine work, so they were intrigued by Batty. A couple of hours later they were still keeping us entertained when Nam finished. All it would take was for me to rebuild the rest of the top end again back at the guesthouse and I would be on the way. They said they would come by in the morning to see how I was doing, I warned then that I would start at 7 and it was only an hour or so's work. .
True to his word Janie showed up, as did Nam who I think was a bit nervous. As soon as we started there was an all might bang and the gasket blew again as one of the new stud threads went.
At 7 pm we had finally rebuilt her again, but this time we had to take the engine right down to opening the crank case. Poor Nam on the only time I did not see him block every opening on the engine as he worked, lost a large washer down the push rod tube into the crank.

Nam in his workshop
This was taken by a Danish chap who stopped for a chat. on the right is Max Dupuis who is traveling around, and buying old bikes in countries that he fancies riding in. In this case it was a very old Honda 100, that had seen him around Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. We shared Nam that day as his Honda need a full make over as well.

Off I went the next seemed ok, apart from a small oil leak from the head somewhere, and a top speed of 42mph....I guess it needs more setting up, but I am failing to get that right despite countless instructions from Henry and the purchase of a tachometer to help set the top rev limit. I follow all the instructions, but fail to get the performance that I should.

My plans have needed to change with these delays and after Singapore, I am going to go first to New Zealand for a month or so and then on to Australia. It will mean missing Indonesia, but it is just one of those things sadly.

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.