Monday, February 27, 2012

Malaysia, beach bum, sunburn and scuba

This is the closest I will probably get to being a beach bum. Were it not for a tiresome propensity for burning I might do it a lot more. When our maker was handing out different skin types, mine was a shortened straw…how I would love to be able to bronze up rather than being the laughing material of the gorgeous apparitions (of the female vary) on the beach. The upsidedown thing is that in all the chemists and shops, the number one product for sale has been for skin whitening…that has been the case in every country since Iran.

Bintang View, my abode for a week

Long Beach, Perhentian Kecil

Perhentian Kecil, Coral Beach

I'm sitting on the veranda of small beach hut on the island of Perhentian Kecil, off the East coast of Malaysia. Batty is tucked up safe and sound in a private car park whilst I've taken myself off for a week of idleness and calm. It may sound like nonsense needing a break when I am on a big break, but the last couple of months have not been plain sailing, what with the new engine stuck in customs, and then it failing on numerous occasions and having to rebuild it 3 times in Thailand.

At the end of my last post I was still bit of a nervous traveler, just expecting there to be more trouble and headaches. Well I am very glad to report that since then she has been a model of reliability. I played around with the settings on the fuel pump/injector and now seem to have got it about right. I did have one near calamity, but that was to do with the rear wheel bearings collapsing. Initially I thought it a flat tyre, but in fact it became very clear what was amiss when ball-bearings started dropping out of the axle. It was blazingly hot, and this turn of events really confounded me. Luckily just as I was about to trudge up the road to find help, it occurred to me that I had some spare bearings and was in the process of digging them out when a local chap screech to a halt on his bike and offered to take me to a mechanic. I tried to explain that I could fix the bike and showed him the new bearings, he immediately grab them and started putting the wheel back together again. So kind, so generous but alas there were a couple of washers he did not put in which caused a few problems later.

The big problem I have now is how to resurrect the veggie oil use. I have written on a couple of bio diesel bulletin boards in America and in Australia and have received a lot of ideas and offers of help, to say nothing of gallons of bio diesel. Overwhelming, and I think it has put me on the right track to resume the use of veg oil.

I only had a few days left of my Thailand visa, so I had to cut short a lovely stay in the town of Hua Hin, where my secret friends in Chiang Mai had very kindly offered the use of their seaside room in this Royal resort, south of Bangkok.

2 long days in the saddle took me to Malaysia which I crossed at the rather pretty, underused western border of Khuan Don. That was a breeze and through in half an hour. There is an extraordinary sense of relaxation when you have 3 months automatic Visa stamped into the passport, it is such a welcome and certainly put me in a very positive mood about this new country I was entering.

It was a bitter sweet feeling leaving Thailand. I guess Thailand is not to be the land of opportunities for me, and I had so want it to be one. There must be a vibe that just does not resonate with me. Twice bitten and all.

Both Susie and Chloe had recommended going to George Town (a World Heritage town ) on the island of Penang. It is on the west of the country and a huge long bridge links it to the mainland. Chloe had been that lots of times suggesting various sites and Susie introduced me to a fellow biking friend called Sam. Sam has his own law practice and is about my age, he immediately flew into action inviting me to join him and friends for lunch followed by dinner and then lunch again the next day. Everyone in his gang were super kind and enthusiastic about making this lonesome traveler very welcome.

I visited the Blue Mansion, a relatively modest but architecturally rich house in the heart of the town,  built by a tycoon a little over 100 years. He had made the mistake of entrusting it for the lifetime of all his children, and bestowed an annual sum of $200 (a great deal then) for its maintenance. Alas it was not indexed linked and the family had to rent it out for the last 50 years and deteriorated badly. Fortunately it has now changed hands and being restored to much of its former glory.

Blue Mansion, where Victorian colonial architecture meet the orient

Going down, passing the counter weighted ascending train
The next day I rode around the island which was about 50 miles, lots of fishing villages, plantations and all connected by some lovely twisting roads. Afterwards I took the train up to the hill station overlooking Georgetown. It was one of the 1st hill stations that the British built in Malaysia. The railway connecting it was an adventure in itself. It climbs up at the incredibly steep angle up the hillside to a stunning position overlooking the island and main land. The 1st attempt to build the railway failed as the engineering wasn't quite right, sensibly the Swiss were then asked to help and they, in the 1920s, set up a very reliable and efficient system.
View from Penang Hill, George Town in fore ground and the connecting bridge crossing to Butterworth.

To get to the Perhentian Islands involves crossing the Malay peninsula and that was nearly a day in the saddle. I wanted to get to the small fishing town of Kuala Besut as early as I could to organise the bike and the trip to the islands. The 7 o'clock start would have ensured it, but for the lack of attention I paid to the route the GPS had mapped out. It was only after about an hour that I realised the lack of logic in our direction. By the time I had got the route properly set and made up for, I was probably 2 hours behind. I don't get angry very often, but I was seething at my stupidity and the poor quality of the maps I have for Malaysia on the GPS. This was quickly forgotten as 150 miles of beautiful and fun road then connected me with the East Coast.

On the backbone of Malaysia, driving west to east through stunning jungle highland
 I will let these pictures do most of the talking, as this is a beautiful island. It is early season, in fact most places are only just opening. I have been in this little resort for 3 nights and it is only now that there are others beginning to drift in. 14 years ago I did a PADI diving course, and apart from one brief dive the next year, it has been a dormant hobby. One can do a refresher course here, which I did and now enjoy the wonders of the deep again.

Fellow divers

In a couple of days time I should have worked out how best to ship to New Zealand. It seems to be quite an expensive leg, which has rather taken me by surprise. I guess there is less freight going to New Zealand. From the island I will head down towards Singapore via the Cameron Highlands which are meant to be lovely.

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.