Chapter 35 – Sri Lanka

IMG_5957

 

Sri Lanka –a tropical island off the south coast of Indian and famous for Ceylon tea, Tamil Tigers and Arthur C Clarke. A lot of people who have visited have been singing its praises, but what’s it like to explore on a motorcycle?

Picking the slightly out of season period of early July, Fanny and I flew on the surprisingly good value Sri Lankan Airlines from Hong Kong to Colombo, and then took a taxi from the airport to a colonial style house that Fanny had booked on the outskirts of the Capital.

IMG_5438

Srilanka

Our motorcycle route… mostly the south west, south and central highlands ….still a few places to visit in the future.

 

IMG_4984

Yasmine’s house on the outskirts of Colombo

IMG_4980

Yep… all to ourselves.

IMG_4992

My new friend … guarding the pool

IMG_5466

Sri Lankan breakfast

IMG_5504

Fanny and our lovely host, Yasmine

IMG_5449

Lush tropical gardens

 

OK…. so enough holiday snaps of Rupert and Fanny idling about and stuffing their faces … for now!

What about the motorcycles?

We searched online and found a place renting out scooters not too far from the airport and we arranged to hire two Honda XR 250 Bajas… an iconic bike and one I have seen being ridden very successfully in remote parts of Africa.

Austin Vince would no doubt approve because its a small 250cc Honda and I can see the logic for having such a bike for a long expedition. I think they look like classic adventure bikes, and I really like the two big headlights and gold wheel rims.

Honda XLR 250R Baja

The Honda XLR 250 Baja … our choice for the Sri Lanka trip

IMG_6100

The actual bikes we hired… the pictures not doing justice to what dogs they really were.

 

I hired a modern Honda XR 250 for a tour of Thailand a few years back and it was in good condition, well looked after, and everything worked. I really liked it.

These bikes were not in good condition, but they were reasonably cheap at US$21 per day. I was assured they were road worthy, although it was obvious that if you actually owned either of them you would have to spend hours in the garage with a full list of repairs and maintenance to do.

Fanny’s bike was slightly lower in the seat than mine, in slightly better condition, but the handlebars had slipped in the triple clamps and were a few degrees out which is something I find incredibly irritating.

Fanny on the other hand didn’t seem to mind…. after all she had ridden across the whole of Africa on a KTM 990 Adventure that had “out of true” handle bars after she crashed her motorcycle spectacularly in the remote deserts of Namibia.

To start the the Baja required a contortionist effort to pull up a broken toggle above the carburetor and engage the “choke”. The bike simply would not start without doing so. With practice I got used to this, but it meant I started the day rolling around on the floor and getting my hands covered in oil and grime. Not a big deal, but annoying nonetheless.

After a good nights rest we took a tut tut scooter taxi from Yasmine’s house all the way up to Negombo in the north where the bike shop was located. It was further than we thought and took a couple of hours, but it did give us a chance to look around and alerted us to the atrocious traffic conditions in and around Colombo, and indeed across Sri Lanka.

 

IMG_5878

I smashed the opaque yellow plastic obscuring the digital display… so I could see the speedo and odometer. It didn’t seem to distract from the overall run down look of the bike. The black bungee held my iPhone in place so I could follow the GPS. It worked “OK”

IMG_5493

Fanny collecting her bike from the shop.

 

We were told by the owner of the shop that we must both get Sri Lankan driving permits and that could take a few days.

Oh?

Or….. we could risk it and deal with the police as and when?

OK, we’ll do that.

We wanted to get on and I was confident I could handle the local rozzers, who seemed to be nice British Colonial types, like I used to be. How hard could it be?

I handed over a deposit and Fanny paid for for 13 days bike hire and we got going along a back lane route I set around the outskirts of Colombo back to Yasmine’s house on the east of the city, in a vain attempt to avoid the heavy traffic.

I was a bit nervous that Fanny had not been riding much over the last year or so, but she quickly got back into it and we both navigated and weaved through the appallingly bad traffic with no problems at all. In fact, the Honda Baja seemed perfect for Fanny.  I had to remind myself that this is a woman who has ridden around the world on every surface and in every condition Planet Earth has to offer.  Fanny is perfectly fine.

I had downloaded an iPhone App called “Sygic” and also the maps for Sri Lanka. This meant that unlike Google or Baidu Maps we could navigate without having to be online. Much like digital cameras put Kodak out of business, these new GPS apps are a free alternative to a Garmin or Tom Tom GPS.

I also bought a Sri Lankan 4G Sim card with internet access for 2 weeks at next to nothing and despite my reservations that there must be a catch, it worked perfectly for the whole trip and the signal coverage was pretty good. I was able to use the online maps as well and tether my phone to Fanny’s iPhone so she had internet access the whole time as well. Isn’t technology great?

The only issue was that the bracket I bought in China to hold the iPhone onto the handlebars?  It was still on the kitchen table in Hong Kong!

Like many occasions on our motorcycle adventures we came up with a work around and I used some bungees and strapped the iPhone onto the dash over the instrument panel that I couldn’t see anyway because the plastic was now opaque yellow.

Fortunately there was a USB power socket that I could power up the iPhone battery … otherwise it would only last a few hours with the bluetooth or GPS activated.  I did have to turn off the headlights as the electrics and battery were a bit dodgy.

Normally you cannot turn off motorcycle headlights, as its a safety feature, but we were in Asia and safety comes second to practicality and so the owners had fitted an on/off switch to save power.

Anyway, bikes and navigation sorted, ready to go.

IMG_5704

Fanny is a really good bike rider and the Honda 250 was perfect for her.

IMG_6096

Blue helmet, blue tinted glasses and headlights on full beam to “try” and scare the locals … all good.

IMG_5564

My Honda Baja had a particularly uncomfortable seat so I bought a seat cover!  A toilet seat cover to be accurate.  Nice.

 

During the trip I carried all the luggage and used my Givi water proof panniers that I had bought in the UK,  and our waterproof North Face day sacks. We were traveling light… just how we like it.  I think we could have gone even lighter, although not much. We wore our light weight motorcycle jackets for protection from sun and because they have a bit of armour inside. Perfect.

After about 50 kilometers in the saddle I came to the indisputable conclusion that my bike had the most uncomfortable seat I have ever sat on. Where was my black sheep skin cover when I needed it? Ah yes….on the kitchen table in Hong Kong with the iPhone bracket. Ta Ma De !

So, I made an emergency purchase (30 UK pence) of a rather lovely toilet seat cover, that whilst not being anywhere near as comfortable as a sheep skin, was Ho Gwoh Mo (better than nothing).

It did mean we had to stop quite often so I could get off the bike and walk about, or stand on the foot pegs for the blood to start flowing into my aging numb bum. Also, it was very hot and quite humid so we needed to stop and take a drink. I have learned from past experience that dehydration creeps up on you quickly on biking expeditions and so water discipline is vital, even if you are not thirsty.

IMG_5533

Bikes parked outside our room at Yasmine’s place in Colombo

IMG_5509

All ready to go …..but first more tea …. my passport says I’m British and it is Ceylon after all!

IMG_5646

Off we go…. a nice anti clockwise trip around southern Sri Lanka

IMG_5544

Not something you see everyday

IMG_5553

And coming to a grinding stop …. less than 50 kilometers into the trip to get carburetor jets cleaned by side of road. And a piece of wood wedged in to stop the plastic panniers melting on the exhaust. See we have done this before!!

 

 

The route out of Colombo and onto the coastal road to Galle, about 170 kilometers away, was like many we had done in third world cities where the locals drive badly and the police don’t care.

Slow and steady wins the race, keep away from nutters, animals and moving lumps of metal, and shout a lot. The shouting is actually pointless, but makes me feel better. Even fanny does it now in various languages.

Our host Yasmine had warned us that the driving could be interesting, and that the arch deacons of terrible driving were the buses.  My goodness, how right she was.

There were two types of bus… a blue one with a man hanging out the door waving his arms and shouting a lot, and a silver one with lots of chrome and lights … but without a man hanging out the door.

They are both awful, but the blue bus particularly so.

I don’t know what the Sinhalese or Tamil is for, ‘get out the friggin’ way… we’re coming through’, but I guess that was what the “hanging out man” was employed to scream at everyone as the bus continually cut everyone up.

It was difficult to get really road raged at Sri Lankan drivers whatever road genocide they seemed to be up to because they were so damned friendly and smiled all the time.

There was quite a lot of Indian style wobbly head, arms waving, and shouting things like ‘What for you kicking my dog calling him fuck off‘ … but in a very friendly and smiley way that immediately dampened any annoyance and made me laugh…even as they attempted to impale us on their front bumpers.

For Fanny?  Nothing unusual… just like a normal day riding in Shanghai. I think she was enjoying it!

About half way down the coastal road my bike stopped and I could see petrol pouring out of the carburetor and dripping straight onto the red hot engine. Holy shit?

After standing well back, scratching my chin and thinking aloud, ‘that’s not good’ over and over again a crowd gathered. After a general consultation with most of Sri Lanka in several languages I didn’t understand, it was opined that the jets were blocked.

We were told that for about 500 Sri Lankan Rupees (a quid or so) any street side mechanic, of which there seemed to be many, could fix it …and that’s what happened. Bike sorted…off we go again.

My bike was not a good specimen of motorcycle. It was 1990s purply blue in colour with those daft graphics they used in those days, and everything was in poor condition. The clutch, the brakes, the engine, the suspension, the bearings, the tyres, every cable, the bodywork, the pegs, the levers, controls, hand grips, ….. everything. I had to keep saying to myself, ‘its still going and its not mine’,  ‘its still going and in 10, 9, 8, etc… days I will never see it again’.

Fanny on the other hand seemed to really like her bike with its non perpendicular handlebars and bent levers.  ‘How’s your bike?’, I would ask her all the time.

‘Fine’, came back the answer every time.

As far as Fanny is concerned, she rarely gets upset by anything… all part of life’s rich tapestry is her mantra. If it goes… all is fine.

I did, however, have to rescue her a few times at traffic intersections when her bike stalled and she couldn’t get it started again.  These Hondas will only start in neutral, not as KTMs and most other bikes will do with the clutch engaged in any gear. The gears were so clunky and stiff to click up and down, and with no green neutral indicator working, it required some serious manual labour and bikers tradecraft to locate neutral and get going again.

The Baja engine is a single piston 250cc, has a simple carburetor,  the frame is quite big in size, and to be honest more than fast enough for everywhere we went to in Sri Lanka. Its just they were both in such a shabby state that I thought mine was going to break down all the time. It also sounded awful…just like a motorcycle about to break down… but it didn’t.

One of the reasons for the noise was that the drive chains were bone dry and hadn’t been oiled, ever.

We were explicitly told not to oil the chains, the reason given that they had ‘O’ rings that would get damaged by oil.  Of course, this was nonsense.

I was unable to tune out the dreadful noise my bike was making as its crunched, screeched  and scraped along and so as soon as I could I put both the bikes and ourselves out of our misery and doused both chains in oil.  Lots of it.

Better.

 

 

IMG_5591

I don’t think elephants or human females should have to wear body covers and masks.  A very bling burka nonetheless.

 

IMG_5583

Sri Lanka … a colourful surprise around every corner

 

IMG_5863

Demonstration ….  “Elephant lives matter”.

IMG_5500

A bit of gravel

IMG_5569

A quid to fix the carburetor and clean the jets

IMG_5562

The Baja is a great bike. Good engine. Some strange quirks, though. For instance the engine oil is poured into a filler in the bike frame near the handle bars… never seen that before.

IMG_5653

Arriving in the Old Fort at Galle on southern coast.

IMG_5595

Street dancing procession… very lively, colourful and loud!

IMG_5874

One of many temples we saw here and there.

IMG_5568

Fanny and her silver XR Baja

 

 

We arrived in Galle by late afternoon and rode around looking at the ancient walled fort, built by the Dutch many centuries ago.

When we got there it was packed with tourists, many from China who were doing the things Chinese seem to do everywhere. Posing for photographs in borrowed traditional clothing, doing ‘V’ signs (??) and repeatedly jumping in the air to get that “joyous jumping in the air” picture to put on Weibo (Chinese Facebook). One person does it… they all do it.

We thought of booking a place in Galle, but the few rooms we saw were a bit grim and expensive and so Fanny found a really nice hotel about 10 kilometers out of town that had a seafood restaurant serving the Sri Lankan specialty of chili mangrove crabs.

A very very happy Fanny indeed.

IMG_5690

Lots of churches

IMG_5667

Galle lighthouse

IMG_5696

Pretty streets and historic buildings in old Galle

IMG_5653

Exploring the walled fort

 

After Galle we headed along the south coast road to Dickwella. Not the greatest name I have ever heard for a place, but as it turned out it was a small coastal town with a beautiful beach in a secluded horseshoe bay. Fanny again did her research magic and booked us into a boutique hotel called “Salt”.

Here we idled about, swam in the sea, read books, Fanny had some body massages, we ambled about on the beach and along trails, ate every hour, and drank continuously.

The rooms at Salt were very tastefully designed with open to the elements bathrooms and semi open bedrooms, in the sense they only had three walls. Quite a few mosquitoes so the fan and mosquito net was really needed.  Sort of luxury camping.

On the top floor was an open plan lounge/bar that served very tasty meals and drinks by very attentive and friendly staff. Simple and stylish. Web link below.

http://www.salthousesrilanka.net/

I am not much of a beach person, nor is Fanny, but we can say this is one of the best beach locations we have ever been to and we will definitely go back for a short break in the future, provided that the commercial developers don’t ruin it.

We discovered the Indian 傻逼 who got me fired from my job in Hong Kong a decade or so ago was building a resort in Dickwella to add to his collection of Monopoly board hotels around the World. Would I like to send him a message, Fanny asked me?  No I friggin’ wouldn’t.

 

IMG_5818

Dickwella…. Horseshoe Bay

IMG_5797

Fanny starts her transition from a light skinned person to a very dark person within 48 hours. I on the other hand went from light pink with red spots to dark pink with red patches.

IIJQ6372

For some bizarre reason … the dogs found me and followed me around for the whole stay. To Fanny’s amazement this always happens where ever we go…from China to Asia to Africa.  I had a pack of pugs follow me for 3 days across Sichuan and Yunnan once. Pugs!

IMG_5792

Warm sea, blue skies, the sound of breeze in palm trees, a book, a hammock, shade and beer….  Idling 101.

IMG_5827

Tea, fresh local fruit and buffalo curd… nice

IMG_5775

Breakfast looking at us

IMG_0497

A particularly gormless expression … That’s me .. not the dog.

IMG_5782

Ms Fang enjoying herself

 

 

IMG_5256 (40)

 

IMG_5793

Yes… I have barely moved

IMG_5812

Like Thailand 30 years ago

IMG_5674

Tea anyone?

IMG_5172 (2)

We ran into a 3 meter snake on the road. I was jumping around  and screaming like a 3 year old girl as it slithered over my flipflops. The snake didn’t seem to care.

IMG_5712

Time to get going again after a relaxing beachy thing and head to Yala…. a large National Park in the south of Sri Lanka

IMG_5869

More elephants…

IMG_5722

South Coast

 

IMG_0527

IMG_0537

‘That will be two bananas for guarding the bikes’

IMG_5910

Hello

IMG_6065

Wild coastline near Yala… reminds me of Overberg in South Africa where we have a house

SIJI2385

The pool at our place in Yala

IMG_5918

Going for a drive in Yala Nature Reserve… lots of elephants and a few leopards

IMG_5957

Even on the beach

IMG_5936

Packed his truck for the seaside

IMG_5883

Huts we lived in on beach near Yala

 

 

 

On the way to Yala National Park we ran into a police road block. As we approached a police officer noticed us and he raised his arm, and so thinking on my feet, or my numb bum more accurately, I employed Rupert’s police avoidance technique and waved enthusiastically back at him and smiled inanely.

As we passed the rather astounded and clearly flustered officer I allowed Fanny to pull up along side me and instructed her, ‘Don’t stop’ and we sped up somewhat as I plotted an escape along less obvious roads to Yala.  I never pay bribes.

We found a pretty swanky apartment right on the beach next to the main gate of the national park, again found by Fanny using online accommodation apps like Expedia and Air BnB. Always much cheaper to book online and you can check the reviews.

I did some investigation near the entrance of the game park and found some local boys who would give us a safari tour in a game viewer at a fraction of the cost being offered by the hotel.

Having been to Kafue, South Luangwa,  Chobe, Okavango Delta, Masai Mara, Etoshe, Kruger, Serengeti, Lake Charla, Ngorogoro Crater, Kilimajaro, etc… we were prepared to be a bit underwhelmed, but to our delight the park was really good.

Yala is mainly famous for leopards and Asian elephants. Alas,  we didn’t get close enough to see any leopards, but there were lots of elephants that for some reason in my mind I thought would be more even tempered than their African cousins.

Much to my absolute delight, and I have to say one of the funniest things I have ever seen, we spotted an elephant ambling along on a beautiful beach. This was too much of a photo opportunity to miss and a bus load of Fujian and Zhejiang peasants (Fanny assured me they were from their appearance and accents) rushed up to the elephant and started snapping away and making a lot of noise.

The elephant clearly took exception to these ivory and rhino horn smuggling 傻逼 and let out a roar that would put its African cousins to shame. It then started chasing after the Chinese whose little legs couldn’t move quick enough in the sand.

Cameras and selfie sticks went flying as they ran away in panic to their bus. The local tour guides rushed into action to shoo the elephant away as I was wiping tears from my eyes. This is too good. I couldn’t help myself as I told one group of thuggish looking Fujian “xiang ba lao” dog eaters that it was karma for all the environmental plunder and ivory smuggling they inflicted on the planet.

They looked absolutely crest-fallen…. not least for being laughed at by a Chinese speaking European.

Brilliant…

The safari got even better as the sun started to fade and we saw other animals emerge from the bush and many beautiful indigenous birds. What could be better…. Chinese being chased by elephants and seeing a beautiful green Sri Lankan Bee-eater swooping the skies catching,  bees, I guess.

IMG_6006

Yala beach house

little_green_bee-eater__yala_west_national_park__sri_lanka

Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) , perched on twig in forest, Yala West National Park, Sri Lanka

IMG_6049

Visit by a monitor lizard while we were having lunch

IMG_6058

oink oink

IMG_6052

Bit of lunch and time to move on to the mountains

IMG_6082

One of many waterfalls we see as we climb up to over 2000 meters into the central mountains

IMG_6080

IMG_6089

Stopping off for coffee in a place called Ella in the hills. It was full of the hippy traveling types that you always encounter in certain parts of Asia. Lots of banana pancakes, lardy pretend effnic food, body piercings, tattoos, Bob Marley on the stereo and more baggy bright hippy uniforms than you can shake a stick at. Not my cup of tea.  Nor fanny’s … so we move on!

IMG_6096

Funny Fanny

 

 

IMG_6101

Not a bad view …Ramboda

 

IMG_6171

View from our hotel room window in Ramboda

IMG_6175

Looks like the Lake District in England.. or Wales perhaps. It is raining after all.

IMG_6159

Long hike up the hill in the rain to the Mackwood tea plantations

 

 

The ride from the hot sunny south coast of Sri Lanka to the cool misty mountainous interior couldn’t have been more dramatic. Within a few hours we rode up nearly 3000 meters, and the temperature dropped from 35 degrees to about 14 degrees….and it started raining. All in 200 kilometers. Some of the time in thick cloud as we rode up and down the twisty roads surrounded by lush green tea plantations.

We stayed at a hotel in Ramboda perched on the hillside with spectacular views of waterfalls and valleys.

The food in the hotel was the usual tourist buffet fodder and so we explored the local villages and ate authentic local dhal, roti, pol sambol, rice noodles, veggies and curries. As usual we had to persuade the waiters and shop owners that we wanted the real deal, not the tourist slop. ‘Are you sure?’, they would always ask. ‘Absolutely… don’t spare the chili and spice and leave the heads on’.

One of our greatest joys traveling around the world is eating local authentic food and its one of the reasons I would struggle living back in Blighty again. I know I always make a fuss about western food being so bad, but with rare exceptions it usually is. The vast majority of my countrymen treat mealtimes like some unpleasant chore and feel guilty for being hungry. They make one concession to healthy eating… the salad.

By contrast, eating in Asia is a joyous occasion and Asians treat food very seriously. With the exception of the Philippines (yes, you know its true), food across the whole of the Asia Pacific is exciting and delicious. I have tried to educate my western friends and relatives about the merits of authentic Asian cuisine but they usually respond with exaggerated theatrics, glaring accusingly at their huang hua yu and yelling, ‘Its looking at me’, or  ‘I ate a chili –I can’t breathe’.

This all said, I would like to point out to my sister Amanda, and her daughter Sally, that my disdain for western food does not apply to cake…. or pudding.  Heaven forbid.

We explored the local tea plantations and at one place called Mackwood we saw how the tea was made and sampled a few cups of rosie leaf, with chocolate cake. There was a flow diagram on the wall of the factory that explained the eight stages of tea production and I am almost sure its the same chart Ms Hingorani, my school teacher at the Holy Rosary Primary School, used in a lesson about tea manufacture some 45 years ago. Maybe there are somethings that never need to change.

We had taken a tut tut scooter taxi up the mountain as it was a fair hike and raining hard, but on the way back we decided to spend the whole afternoon hiking 15 kms back to the hotel through the tea plantations and alongside the waterfalls. Very interesting.

The following day we decided to ride to Kandy in the center of Sri Lanka and have a look  at the temples and Buddhist relics and then ride along the country lanes back to Colombo. Our advise to anyone wanting to do a motorcycle ride in Sri Lanka, or anywhere else for that matter, is to set the route to all the “B” roads or less. This can be done on some GPS navigation programs in the route menu, but its better to plan the route ahead by setting way-points to avoid congested and hectic main roads. You see more and its much more enjoyable.

The bikes were still ticking along OK, although no more comfortable, but they had done the job and so far nothing had crashed into us, despite a few close shaves.  As we took a break I asked Fanny what she wanted to do for the next few days. She said she wanted to return the bikes and go back to Yasmine’s house and relax.

Wow… just what I wanted to do too.

We telephoned Yasmine and she had a couple from Canada in the guest house we had stayed in previously, but she said we could stay in a spare room in the main house…a beautiful room like the rest of her house. Very stylish and tasteful.

The bike shop we hired the Hondas from were less than accommodating and said, ‘a contract is a contract’,  and they would not return the balance of the rental. Really?  Yes, really.  After so many years I should have realized what these types are like. Always friendly when taking your money… not so much if you ask for it back.  Suan le ba?

So, the rest of the few days we had in Sri Lanka we relaxed in the peaceful gardens of Yasmine’s home and explored around Colombo, eating chili crabs and mooching around the shops and back streets.

Sri Lanka is a great place. Very friendly people, some absolute gems of places to see, tropical sunny weather, lots of elephants, cheap and excellent food.

Would we do it on a motorbike again? Perhaps not. But thanks to the British Empire and its talented Victorian engineers if we ever came back to Sri Lanka we will get around like the locals…..  by train.

 

IMG_6105

Nice view from the bog.

IMG_6188

Goodbye Bajas… you made it…just

IMG_6194

My riding partner

IMG_6276

Back at Yasmines with Kumari, our excellent chef. Thanks Kumari.

IMG_6270

Oh go on… another meal!

IMG_6198

Bit of warm rain from the monsoon that was affecting the west of Sri Lanka and India

IMG_6222

I have no idea what Fanny is doing. Sitting on a throne?

IMG_6217

Exploring Colombo

IMG_6147

Buying tea

IMG_6250

Colombo … will not look the same in 5 years for sure.

IMG_6224

Wandering around Colombo

 

IMG_6247

Sundowner in the sky lounge of a hotel in Colombo

IMG_6253

Our last sunset in Sri Lanka … for now

 

 

 

Next Chapter ….. Colorado and Utah BDR on a Honda Africa Twin

 

 

 

 

Chapter 31 – Vietnam and Cambodia

So what do two adventure bikers do for their Christmas holidays?

Of course, go on another motorcycle adventure, this time to Vietnam and Cambodia.

20141224_074148

Lots of temples in the Cambodian forests… some like this very isolated

20141226_090700

Riding through The Cardomon mountains, Cambodia on a Honda Transalp 650

IMG_2118

Coffee and noodles and more coffee in Hanoi.

IMG_2116

Riding around Hanoi

…………………………………………………………………………….

…………………………………………………………………………….

20141221_121842

Our Honda and a hat

20141221_122722

Hanoi

Flying directly into Phnom Penh from Hong Kong was expensive and so we decided to fly into Hanoi first, have a look around and then take a local flight to Cambodia where we would pick up a Honda Africa Twin and spend two weeks over the holidays touring the country, and perhaps include a few days relaxing on the southern coast.

I have been to Ho Chi Minh a few times, but neither Fanny or I had been to Hanoi and we had been planning to go there for some time.   Originally our plan was to ride from Hanoi to Hai Phong, inspired by the famous “Top Gear Special”, but we didn’t really have enough time to do a big trip in both Vietnam and Cambodia. Also, Fanny was recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery to her knee and she did not want to ride a bike herself, and so we decided to spend the majority of our time in Cambodia as we could share a larger adventure motorbike. It seems Vietnam only hires out small scooters and mopeds, which are perfectly OK for scooting about the city, but a bit challenging for an countrywide tour in a few days.

Hanoi is a really interesting and bustling city with French and Chinese style architecture reflecting its rather complicated heritage. We liked it very much. There are tens of thousands of scooters riding about in a seemingly chaotic manner, but after a while you realize, despite universal none adherence to any traffic laws whatsoever, that carnage, death and destruction is actually quite rare. In fact, everyone just manages to avoid colliding into everyone else.

20141221_121619

When in Hanoi….

20141221_122827

Lots of markets and hawkers stalls

20141221_093339

School kids visiting the Hanoi War Museum…

20141221_092625

And serving soldier …

20141220_165308

20141220_165104

A B52 …once

20141220_165009

And Fanny . and B52 wreckage in a very small pond.

20141221_124633

Riding into restaurant in Hanoi

20141220_170612

Exploring around the narrow streets… perfect on a moped

IMG_2117

Look at her happy face… anyone would think she had found authentic Vietnamese beef noodles for a dollar

IMG_2115

And more…

IMG_2109

IMG_2113

IMG_1987

I believe this is a called a “take a picture of your self” or something like that.

IMG_2119

Fanny and I hiking around Hanoi

20150102_111406

Before…..

20150102_101758

After… !

20141220_173230

Zoom…. kids and all

Crossing the road on foot does take a leap of faith, if not courage, and yet the bikes and cars just seem to slide by, dodge and side step you, employing well practiced collision avoidance techniques. Accidents do happen of course, and like their Thai neighbours the Vietnamese take enormous pleasure in publishing the graphic images of squashed and smashed up human being in newspapers and specialist magazines. Everyone’s got to have a hobby I suppose.

Finding accommodation in Hanoi was easy and we stayed at a superb hotel in the old town called Oriental Suites. A colonial looking and very well managed mid sized hotel right in the heart of the old town. Great coffee and very obsequious staff… just how we like it.

http://www.orientalsuiteshotel.com/en-us/hotels/home.html

We decide to hire a scooter to get around and explore the city and at first were given a “last thing you’ll ever ride” piece of junk clearly belonging to one of the hotel staff.  After an 18.5 second test drive I returned and gave the hotel manager a full and frank appraisal of his “Vamporetta” or whatever it was. The traffic was bad enough in Hanoi, but without any brakes, steering bearings gone, and an engine that stalled all the time… I don’t think so.  So, we were given one of the ubiquitous Honda 110 mopeds and it was perfectly fine and off we went.

We found lots of great restaurants, cafes, noodle shops, and market stalls, most of which were selling a huge array of Christmas decorations and junk nobody really needs in life. The street food was very good and it seems the Vietnamese, like the southern Chinese they share a border, will eat absolutely anything. There were a lot of roasted pooches looking rather sad for themselves in heated glass display cases at various street hawker stalls. Evidently, the locals are perfectly aware that their taste in cuisine isn’t appreciated by the vast majority of tourists, including many Chinese from the more civilized cities and northern provinces, and so they were sensitive to people like Fanny and I taking pictures of poached pug and char grilled collie. But we did anyway.

Hanoi, along with the same parts of China that regularly eat dog, i.e. Guangxi and Guangdong, are also the markets for rhino horn although I never saw any evidence of this devastating trade in endangered animal parts. Not surprising since gram for gram rhino horn its more valuable than gold. Wont last for long though as there wont be a rhino left on the planet within a generation.

20150102_104120

Harley Bikers in Hanoi

20150102_102527

Biker Cafe

20150102_102507

20150102_102324

20150102_102327

20150102_102420

20141221_094245

Lots of captured US aircraft

20141221_093545

US aircraft sculpture ….

20141221_093602

20141221_093230

The winners flag flying above their captured aircraft

20141221_093628

20141221_093513

20141221_093859

20141220_175927

Bit mad on roads in day and night

20150102_095333

Hanoi shop

Anyway, we explored the back streets, drank lots of excellent coffee, went to a small lake with the wreckage of a downed B52 bomber still in it, and really enjoyed our visit to the Hanoi War Museum that was full of US warplanes and helicopters, as well as large displays of medieval warfare techniques and home made weapons used against the French troops during the 1950s. Despite nearly everyone being half the size of Fanny, the Vietnamese seem like very tough people… they certainly have a high tolerance for discomfort and hardship.

A day or so later we took a Vietnamese flight via Vientiane in Laos to Phnom Penh and breezed through immigration very quickly as we had applied for our visas in advance. We avoided the taxis and hired a “tut tut” on the main highway to take us to our hotel, the Grande Palaise, near the central market.

IMG_1994

Phnom Penh

IMG_1984

In a tut tut on way to pick up our bike

IMG_1964

Cambodia-physical-map

20141222_195401

The Grande Palaise, Phnom Penh… looks nice until you have to flush a lavatory.

20141222_195113

Ahh… no guests at breakfast… wonder why?

20141223_085636

The GDP of a country is inversely proportional to the length of their leader’s motorcade.

20141223_094310

If you see this dog …. hand him over to the Cambodian police … not the Vietnamese police…unless you are fond of pug stew.

20141222_195503

An amazing looking colonial hotel in keeping with its name, but the devils in the detail and its seems Cambodian attention to detail and good grouting is en par with that in Hong Kong.  The hotel had been converted from an old colonial cinema and it was also clear that they had done a pretty crap job of it. The electric was shocking, the plumbing was appalling, and the bed was lumpy. Judging by the expression on the faces of two snooty looking French guests at breakfast the next morning we were not the only people to think so.

The next day we navigated around a seemingly endless motorcade of Vietnamese and Cambodian officials in blacked out limos, army trucks and police officers in SUVs as they raced back and forth across the city.  Cars and pedestrians alike were forced to stop by hundreds of police officers as this officialdom went about what ever it was doing. Eventually there was a window of opportunity to move about and we got another tut tut to our motorcycle hire shop.

The Bike Shop is run by a Frenchman and his Cambodian partner and we rented a decent looking, but rather old 2001 Honda Transalp 650. I was a bit disappointed that the Africa Twin 750 we had booked online had been given to a French couple, but in the end the Transalp was absolutely faultless and was to prove the ideal bike for some very demanding riding later on. I really grew to like the Transalp.

http://www.motorcyclecambodia.com

We had intended to ride south to the coastal resort town of Kep, but decided instead to ride north west towards Siem Reap where the world heritage temples of Angkor Wat are located. For those not familiar with Cambodia, and that included me before this trip, there is a huge lake in the middle of the country and you have no choice but to ride around it.  No bridges span it and during the rainy season it expands greatly in size and pretty much the whole country is under water.

As it was late December we were traveling in the dry season and so we rode along unsurfaced, potholed and dusty construction roads for several hundred kilometers to Kampong Thom. The Honda, although 14 years old, was extremely well maintained and I could tell from the briefing about checking oil, general maintenance and spare parts that the company we hired it from really looked after their bikes and cared about them. We were also given soft panniers and I have to say if ever I ride around the world or do a significant motorcycle adventure again I will use some sort of soft pannier system rather than the  hugely expensive aluminum square “Touratech” boxes we had on our KTMs for our ride through Africa and Europe.

Because the roads and traffic were so bad we didn’t make the progress we thought we’d make. Also, I was by now really fed up riding on a so called national highway made of holes, dirt and more holes with thick dust being thrown up by trucks and speeding SUVs and so at Kampong Thom we turned off the highway and headed north towards Preah Vihear where we were told there were some interesting temples in the hills at the northern border with Thailand and Laos.

A great decision. The roads were now virtually empty, the scenery was very rural and beautiful, and the road surface was excellent. After about 40 kilometers we saw a sign indicating that there was a resort nearby and since it was getting late and we were tired we headed off along a narrow road through endless fields full of cows, water buffalo and horses and between expanses of rainforest and large deciduous trees.  At around 6pm the light faded noticeably and we had still been unable to find the “resort”, but we did find the ruins of an ancient temple complex. Quite a sight to find in the middle of a forest as the sun was going down.

There was no one around except for a young man on a scooter by a small wooden booth. We stopped to ask him about the “resort”.  ‘This is it”, he told us in perfect English.  Huh!  Apparently the resort was the ruins of the stunning Khmer temples and there was, in fact, no “hotel with a swimming pool and a restaurant” type resort that Fanny and I had envisaged in our minds.

20141224_071018

20141224_070456

One of many temples we found

20141224_065614

Fanny and the young Cambodian guy who brought us back to his homestay

20141223_165801

Restaurant where we had our dinner and evening shower in a cow paddock behind restaurant

IMG_2094

Just Fanny and I exploring a site full of temples in the forest

IMG_2093

IMG_2090

IMG_2026

IMG_2014

IMG_2010

IMG_2004

IMG_1997

early morning light

IMG_2097

Prasat Yeay Poeun

IMG_2018

IMG_2091

IMG_2085

Our homestay

IMG_2087

Morning fire at our homestay…

IMG_2086

Morning wash

20141224_062045

20141224_065851

20141224_070056

20141224_072326

Inside one of the temples

20141224_075346

Sandy roads

20141224_072946

20141224_125949

20141224_125833

20141224_074307

20141224_125846

2001 Honda

We had no tent, no sleeping bags and actually very little in the way of luggage at all. Certainly no food. Neither of us were too fussed. It wasn’t raining, the temperature was a perfect 24 degrees and we could perhaps kip with the ghosts in one of the many thousand year old ruins.

‘You can stay at a homestay’, the young man told us. ‘No problem’.

Apparently for 6 dollars for the two of us we could stay at a local home, and that is what we did. But first, food hunting. We were told there was a village nearby and we could find something to eat. Result.

We rode into a charming little farming village and found a small stall selling a very limited selection of local food, including something that looked like papaya salad with dried river prawns. As we drew up on the Honda the whole village stopped and stared at us as if we had landed in a flying saucer. The lady owner looked us up and down and we were covered from head to toe in red dust. I was wearing shorts and my light weight motorcycle jacket and my legs were absolutely caked in filth.

Would I like a shower?  Yes, I would and so I was taken into the cow paddock behind the restaurant where there was a well, a plastic bowl, a hand pump, and a bar of soap right in the middle of the field.

I looked around pondering whether I should just wash my hands and face or have a full shower, and if so am I expected to stand in the field stark bollock naked or wear a sarong or something?  I started stripping off and nobody seemed to take any notice and so I had a proper wash and then wandered back to the restaurant absolutely refreshed and in great spirits.

‘You gotta have a shower’, I told Fanny, as I described the washing facilities, ‘ Its great’.

I chatted as best I could with the owner and her extended family while Fanny had a more modest shower in a field in the middle of Cambodia. Fanny came back all refreshed and tucked into some rather chewy and gamey prawns, and I decided that dinner would be a fried egg and three bottles of Angkor beer.

After we left the restaurant, bade our farewells and were riding through the pitch blackness of where ever it was, I suddenly realized that all the farm houses looked exactly the same and could not remember which was the one we agreed we would stay in. They were all virtually identical wooden structures on stilts and it was pitch dark except for a few lights that were powered by small electric generators or oil lamps. Luckily Fanny came to the rescue and remembered that the only distinguishing feature was that “our” farm house had two doors on the outside bog. And indeed it did.

We parked the Transalp under the farm house, right next to the young man who introduced the homestay in the first place, who was resting in a hammock. Aha! It was his families house. We were shown up the wooden stairs, found our little space on the wooden floor with two mats covered by a mosquito net, lit a candle and settled down.

I had bought a Cambodian sim card for US$5 at the airport the day before and it had unlimited 4G internet connection for one month, and low and behold it actually worked and so Fanny and I did some research and realized that we were in the middle of the pre-Angkorian temple complex called Sambor Pre Kuk.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambor_Prei_Kuk

I slept absolutely soundly and very comfortably. It was pretty much like camping. I woke up as the sun was rising thanks to several hundred cockerels and the rest of the farm yard dawn chorus engaging in a rendition of “Old MacDonald had a farm”. We had a quick wash from a bucket, a warm up by the fire and then packed our few things up.

Would we like to see the temples?  Yes please.  Our young saviour who found us somewhere to stay and guarded our bike over night was also the ticket issuing official to the temple complex. US$5 dollars later we were riding along sand tracks through an 8th century world heritage site with not another soul in sight. The morning light streaming through the tree canopy gave the temple ruins a surreal appearance and we spent several hours exploring. Simply amazing.

We then continued north to Preah Vihear through a truly idyllic rural setting. It was like taking a ride in a time machine and going back several hundred years to a purely agricultural pre-industrial era. Like an oriental version of Constable’s Hay Wain painting, there were beautiful trees and flowers, paddy fields with oxen pulling wooden ploughs, farm labourers toiling in the fields, strange looking long legged white cows with frilly necks, water buffalo wallowing in paddies, and typical Asian skinny mongrel dogs skulking about.

As we got further north the topography became more hilly, but not particularly mountainous as we thought it would. Again we found more amazing Khmer temple ruins, but we were a bit templed out and wanted to press on to Siem Reap and find a place to rest and so we headed south west along very rural and narrow roads. None very direct. Fanny was navigating from the pillion seat using my Samsung phone and a map app, but like parts of west China we rode through the maps were clearly not very accurate.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preah_Vihear_Temple

We did a lot of riding that day and I had the beginnings of a sore bottom, as did Fanny. In fact, riding pillion is more tiring on your lower back and bum than actually riding because you are not supported by the handlebars. The scenery and riding was amazing, but the Honda Transalp seat was not the most comfortable I have ever sat on. I had forgotten to bring my sheep skin seat cover and was regretting it.

We approached Angkor Wat from the north along very rural roads, and for about 5 kilometers actually rode along a very narrow canal embankment, through local villages and then suddenly we were inside the Angkor Wat complex via a rather unorthodox route.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat

20141224_154340

20141224_155625

Not something you see everyday

20141224_154350

An amazing place .. and we could ride our motorcycle freely between the temples.. Not Angkor Wat, but the other one nearby.

20141224_155443

20141224_160043

20141224_160250

Riding towards Angkor Wat

20141224_162817

20141224_162307

20141224_155652

IMG_2027

20141224_160211

Angkor Wat complex

20141224_072116

Wow!  Templed out or not, fond of history or not, this is a spectacular place to see and experience.  On par with the Taj Mahal and Giza pyramids, the symmetry and beauty of these Cambodian temples is astonishing. As with the other man made wonders of the world, Angkor Wat is something most people are familiar with and yet its a strange feeling to actually see the buildings in the flesh, so to speak. The scale was larger than I was expecting and there were a lot more temple complexes, statues and structures. Whilst we could ride right up to many of the ruins and structures, the actual Angkor Wat is surrounded by a huge symmetrical square moat and you can only get to it by crossing a foot bridge.

Not as old as the temples we had seen so far, its undoubtedly the most spectacular. Originally Hindu and later Buddhist, its supposed to be the largest religious complex in the world and like the pyramids, and indeed Stonehenge, the architectural skill and engineering involved in its construction is almost inconceivable.

We had started early that day and we were feeling tired, but the early evening light and amazing architecture was mesmerizing.  As expected there were a lot of tourists from all over the world which contrasted with the virtual empty temples we had seen earlier in the day.

After seeing as much as we could, we rode a few kilometers south into the busy city of Siem Reap and found a very pleasant hotel to stay in called Horizons Cambodia.  Given it was one of best B&Bs in the town and it was peak season we were lucky to just rock up and find a vacancy. In fact. they also gave us a really nice suite and allowed us to park our motorcycle in the garden behind locked gates. A result.

It was Christmas Eve and we wandered into the old part of the town and found a very decent restaurant serving local delicious local food.  My bum was still really sore and I could barely sit down, but what a great day.

The next morning we had a big choice to make. As there is a huge expanse of water called Tonle Sap Lake just south of Siem Reap and right in the middle of the country, we could either go clockwise around it, ride the truly awful national highway again back to Phnom Penh and then further on to the south coast, or take a much longer anti clockwise ride around the lake towards Battambang and then south across the Cardamon Mountains towards Koh Kong on the south west coast of Cambodia.  This is very near to Koh Chang in Thailand which I toured a few months earlier (previous chapter).

Fanny and I wanted to see the Cardamon mountains as they are off the tourist route, remote, and home to some of the last expanses of Asian rainforest.  However it would take two to three days, I was not sure where we would stay, and we would probably have to ride on gravel tracks and trails.

I prefer to stand up on foot pegs when riding off road, partly because of balance and centre of gravity, and partly to take the load off my bum. With a  pillion rider you have to sit down all the time, and for the pillion rider they are also going to have a rough old ride balancing on the back seat. Fanny was game on anyway, and so we set off west towards the western border with Thailand and by lunchtime swung around the lake and were heading south east towards Battambang.

Whilst filling with petrol at a gas station and studying the map I realized that going forward navigation was going to be a bit tricky. We were told by locals there were some new gravel roads built by Chinese contractors to serve hydro electric dams up in the mountains, but these were not marked on our maps. In fact, as far as this remote south western part of Cambodia was concerned none of the maps reconciled at all.

Oh well, go for it.

As we turned off a fairly busy highway between Battambang and Posat we still had about five hours of daylight left. Within a few kilometers, the road narrowed and we were on a single trail just elevated above the paddy fields and within fifteen kilometers it turned into the classic gravel type track we were very familiar with in southern Africa.

I could see a range of medium sized mountains in the distance and knew that there were several peaks around two  thousand meters in height that we would have to navigate around. I was estimating that as the crow flies we had about 250 kilometers to reach Koh Kang, but the roads indicated on both our hard and soft copy maps meandered about and often faded out completely.  I know logically that locals over the years would move between villages and there should be some sort of access, even if only using small tracks.

As we rode along Fanny suddenly told me that our position on the cellphone map indicated we were in the middle of a field, and yet we were still on the road. Strange. We had similar problems in remote locations in Sudan and Egypt from time to time, but then we were using a GPS with loaded maps, rather than a cellphone that uploaded maps from the 3G internet signal.

We carried on for a while, but we were going more and more off course, or so it appeared. After a while I doubled back to the point it deviated and could see no sign of another road and so we turned around yet again and carried on again.  After about 40 minutes we arrived at a small village where I could see a cell phone repeater mast on a nearby hill. However, the Samsung still showed we were in the middle of nowhere and our hard copy map tended to indicate we had gone too far west.

Time to ask someone, but we were really struggling with the language and through repeated attempts I realized the locals would just nod and shake there heads, point in any direction and agree to anything you said just to get rid of you and save face. I am pretty sure “I don’t know” is not in a Cambodian’s vocabulary.

20141224_074033

Riding around on sand roads in the forest looking for temples

20141225_143240

A lot of gravel roads in Cambodia

20141226_090700

20141226_092536

Crossing one of the Chinese bridges across the dams for the hydro electric stations in Cardamom mountains

20141226_095425

20141226_103548

me

20141226_113513

20141226_125447

Nice bit of concrete near dams… only last a few kilometers and then back to gravel and sand

20141226_090552

20141226_084945

IMG_2081

This is pretty much only picture we have of the rough roads as I had to concentrate on riding and Fanny was holding on for grim life. Usual obstacle course …. quite steep here and deciding which route to take. Good fun really

IMG_2082

Mostly we were on our own all day… rarely saw any other people

IMG_2083

Is it a road or a stream? … both apparently

IMG_2080

20141226_113130

Water to cross

20141226_092834

Reservoirs for hydro electric dams

20141226_092841

One of many bridges crossing the dammed river in the Cardamom mountains

20141226_092821

Fanny

20141226_075633

If its takes a car .. it’ll take us

20141226_100140

Eventually someone pointed to a road that by the position of the sun seemed to be heading south and that to my mind was all the corroboration I needed and so we started riding down an increasingly narrow and eroded trail.  Within half an hour the road turned into an obstacle course of rocks, deeply rutted hardened mud and occasional ponds and swollen streams. I was sweating profusely as we battled along for an hour, making what I guess was less than 10 kilometers in progress. The track went up, down, left, right, through jungles, over ridges and across streets and rivers. Often the vegetation was so think, or a branch so low I would have to get off the bike and walk it through while ducking.

We stopped for a water break, looked around, studied my lying maps, and then I looked at Fanny for some feedback.  I was a bit concerned she was not enjoying her “Christmas Day lost in the jungle adventure”, but actually she was in pretty good spirits and seemed to be enjoying herself.  Of course, as an adventure rider I do not like to say that I am lost, rather I am not where I thought I should be. Nevertheless I hadn’t a fucking clue where we were.

Occasionally the track or river bed was so bad that Fanny had to get off and walk as a tackled some particularly rutted patches or wade the bike through a river or stream, or worse a river that I didn’t know what the depth actually was. I have to say that the Transalp was superb though…. handling like a modern 250 enduro.  I was a bit nervous that I was giving the 14 year old veteran too much of a work out as the long suspension fattened out and the belly pan scraped over logs and rocks. But it seemed fine, the engine, gear box, clutch all purring along doing what its meant to do. Only the suspension was showing its age, but then it was carrying two big chunky humans over a surface that resembled a trials bike course.

A one stage there was a dark and particularly still expanse of water in the jungle where the trail suddenly just stopped and so we got off and prodded around a bit, trying to gauge how deep the water was.  The dark pond seemed to continued into the darkness of the jungle and I couldn’t see the other side from where we were.

With no other vehicles to observe going through the water Fanny decided to get off and take a jungle trek around and I took a leap of faith and plunged into the water and sludge and to my relief emerged out the other side. I was a bit alarmed to catch sight of a large snake dashing for safety as I hurtled towards it. If I lost momentum the bike would undoubtedly fall over and get stuck in the sludge, so out my way Sid, I’m coming through.

Trucks clearly used the trail, possibly as a short cut, or maybe there was no other way through. I just couldn’t tell. But during the recent rainy season the trucks had carved out two to three foot deep troughs in the mud that had now hardened and were like an obstacle course and quite difficult to ride across. Often there was no sign of consensus for the two wheeled traffic and the motorcycle tracks weaved about and went in all directions.

I don’t drop my bike often but on one particularly nasty stretch I hesitated on a high ridge with Fanny on the back and as there was a four foot drop on either side there was nowhere to put my feet and so I called out to Fanny that we were going over and in very slow motion that is exactly what happened.  Fanny jumped off, but I didn’t want to damage the hired Honda and so it fell on top of me. No Alpinestar enduro boots, no enduro gear.. just shorts and trainers and so I was pinned into the hardened mud with 200kg of motorcycle on top of me. It hurt a bit but I was basically uninjured and the bike was completely undamaged having had a soft landing.

Adventure bikers will know that once pinned under a heavy adventure bike its near on impossible to get it off. However, Fanny has a black belt in picking up motorbikes and despite the uneven surface she lifted the bike sufficiently for me to wriggle out from underneath it. Once free we could easily right the bike, push it to a place we could get back on again and carry on.

It was a stupid fall caused because I was faffing about and because I was tired near the end of a very long day of riding.  Riding off road is a head game and requires being focused, being balanced, using proper throttle control and riding assertively. If you lose momentum on a slope or uneven ground you will fall down. If the front wheel washes out or don’t use proper throttle to keep up a forward momentum you will fall down. And if you are wearing shorts and trainers instead of enduro boots and riding gear, you stand a good chance of hurting yourself.

We crossed a few more rivers and I was starting to think we had bitten off a bit more than we could chew. On one tricky and very rutted section Fanny said she would prefer to get off and walk and so I powered the very capable Honda along the twisty and ploughed up trail, until the surface improved a bit and there were less streams to cross and then waited for Fanny. After a while I decided to park up the bike and hike back the way I came to find her and share some water.

As I was hiking back I could hear the unmistakeable whine of a 100cc moped and then I saw it appear out of the murkiness of the jungle canopy, with an old man riding and Fanny waving and laughing on the back. As it approached I noticed the old man only had one leg.

‘I have been rescued by a real biker who knows what he’s doing’, Fanny said laughing.  Well you can’t argue with that.

We thanked to old man who then he soldiered on into the jungle again and we watched until the putt putt sound of the moped disappeared. I am quite sure he knew the route much better than me, but was humbled by his riding skill and endurance, especially given the fact that he had only one leg and was about 70 years old.

We had spent a good deal of the afternoon battling along the trail and did seem to be getting nearer to a visible cross roads near the Pursat River that looked like it might be habitable and we might find somewhere to stay. And then almost suddenly we were in pitch blackness. For some strange reason that only Cambodian’s will understand, you are not allowed to put your headlights on while riding in the daytime.  This safety feature is reserved only of the government. In most parts of the world the headlights on a motorcycle are always on… for safety so you can be seen. Not so in Cambodia and so now it was officially dark I could turn them on.

Riding in the dark is not so bad,  you can see the road clearly enough, you just can’t seen anything else.  After a while we came off the trail and joined a more substantial gravel track and within about 30 kilometers we were at the cross road marked on the map which in reality was a roundabout with a statue of an elephant in the middle. Not only did we find a hotel, but also a pretty decent roadside restaurant.

The hotel wasn’t very nice, but it was cheap, had a sort of shower thing, and we could ride the bike into the hotel building and park it outside our room. Again we were filthy, but after a scrub down and some food were out for the count.

20141226_084451

20141226_090615

Out of jungle into an open space … time for a water break

20141226_090646

Rest break…. dense forest behind which we rode through on second day in Cardamom mountains

20141226_092912

Plaque showing Chinese Civil Engineering Company who build hydro electric plants, bridges and dams etc…

20141226_095316

Gravel roads and trails

20141226_083054

20141226_083025

Good bit of gravel road meandering through Cardamom mountains

20141226_110533

Have to stand up a bit… bum too sore and road to rough

20141228_101018

Fanny doing the elephant sign motorcyclist pose … we all have to.

20141226_113021

Our Honda Transalp 650 on a good stretch of gravel road in the Cardamom mountains, SW Cambodia.

20141228_100948

Similar to picture I took of Nick Dobson in Namibia’s Skeleton Coast in 2009

20141228_100120

After you….

20141228_165116

Fanny playing volleyball for first time after her ACL operation with some locals in Kep

The next day the weather was perfect. The bike started which was a relief and we set off up into the mountains and subsequently along some of the best trails I have ever ridden. The only sign of humans were when we got close to a hydro electric dam and the road turned to concrete, but quickly reverted back to gravel and sand after a few kilometers. There were many lakes and quite a few impressive bridges and dams.  We passed through some very basic villages that reminded us very much of Africa and meandered around lake shores, rivers and contour trails around hills.

Strangely, considering the natural beauty of the rainforest we were riding through, there were no animals and birds. I expected this area to be teeming with life, like a tropical paradise, but it was unnaturally barren and very quiet apart from a few insects and butterflies. Had the Cambodians eaten the place clean during the war? Perhaps.

By mid afternoon I could tell by signs of human activity and signs of electric pylons etc… we were getting nearer to Koh Kong, and as we descended out of the mountains we could see the sea, a huge river delta, mangroves swamps, bridges and the buildings of the coastal town that border with Thailand.

We stayed at Oasis Resort, a very lucky find indeed given it was peak season, and a thoroughly relaxing place to re-charge the batteries for a couple of days. A lovely location next to the river and mangroves, great value for money, big clean and well appointed room, top notch bar and restaurant and a superb “infinity style” swimming pool. Jason, an Englishman from Southampton, had built it from scratch over a decade ago and over the years built one of the best places we have stayed at.  Jason is starting a new project in Sri Lanka and so this place will be up for sale. Very tempting.

http://oasisresort.netkhmer.com/p/blog-page_30.html

r

Riding down towards Koh Kong

20141227_110729

More water to cross

20141227_121951

Chilli crab on beach at Koh Kong

20141227_112735

Riding along elevated trail roads above mangrove swamps in Koh Kong

20141227_110701

Oasis Resort in Kep

20141227_110745

Jason at his resort called Oasis in Koh Kong…. Highly recommended.

20141227_110811

Oasis infinity pool, Koh Kong

20141227_110731

Oasis Resort, Koh Kong

20141227_112743

Exploring the magrove swamps around Koh Kong

20141227_122041

Koh Kong …. next to Chilli Crab restaurant.

20141227_122026

Koh Kong

20141227_131732

Fanny concentrating on chilli crab

20141229_122908

Our hotel in Kep

20141231_181413

Kep

20141229_120310

Relaxing at our French owned resort in Kep

20141229_124218

How many glasses of rosie can one drink in the afternoon before falling asleep? Six allegedly.

20141231_113948

Kep beach

20141229_125707

Not too shabby…. our hotel for New Years Eve in Kep

20141231_180850

Our evening dinner spot…. Kep

20141229_162934

15 seconds after this photograph was taken the cow took exception to Fanny and tried to head butt here… luckily it was tethered

20141229_170234

20141229_172848

Hiking around Kep

20141230_105826

Seafood market in kep

20141228_181115

20141228_175116

Kep coastline where we went sailing

20141226_090529

Really good bike ….

IMG_2140

Ummm…I think it was a good move to get a Honda Transalp instead of a Honda Africa Twin… maybe.. perhaps… probably.

IMG_2135

New Years Eve in Kep, Cambodia

IMG_2138

Kep…. relaxing at Yacht Club with a sundowner

20141224_074233

Fanny and our trust stead

20141224_072354

Never stop exploring

IMG_2171

Another year gone by….

After exploring Koh Kong, eating chilli crabs, drinking Angkor beer on the beach, swimming, serious idling about and yarning with Jason we set off back into the mountains, but this time on a good road through Boulum Sakor National Park, with elevated views across the forests towards Kep.  We passed the turning to Sihanouk which was described by some people we met as a tourist resort for “common people with nasty kids” and into Kampot which is famous for pepper plantations. We didn’t stay, but it looked a pretty nice place, and continued to Kep.

At first, I didn’t care for Kep too much, but I grew to really like it.  Quiet, relaxed, very nice resorts and excellent food. Just what we wanted for a few days over the new year. We hired a hobby cat and sailed around until Fanny got seasick, tried out a few French owned resorts that actually had some vacancies as we hadn’t booked ahead, did some hiking and exploring, ate a lot and saw in the New Year at a party at the Yacht Club.  Well, “saw in” is a bit of an exaggeration as we both fell asleep at 10 pm … which was just as well as we had to ride back to Phnom Penh the next day to return the Honda before midday, which we did.

As we had some time to kill before our flight to Hanoi we decided to visit the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuol_Sleng_Genocide_Museum

20141231_212542

20141231_212426

Whilst we should all be aware of what real shits human beings can be when push comes to shove, I wish I never went. It was thoroughly depressing and disturbing. Its unimaginable what the Cambodians did to each other in the killing fields and torture chambers just a few decades ago, until of course its thrust in your face at such a hell hole as this.  With the ungodly atrocities being committed at this moment by ISIL, Jihadis and Boko Haram… carrying on where the Maoists, Rwandans, Japanese and Nazis left off, do we really need it? Maybe, maybe not.  I just wish I hadn’t gone.

We caught the evening flight back to Hanoi, stayed at the same hotel in the old town as before, and the next day took another short flight and were back in Hong Kong with yet another motorcycling adventure added to the list.

The Honda Transalp was a superb bike for an old girl, and hauled the two of us all over Cambodia with ease. Its fired up my interest to take a look at the Honda CRF 1000 Africa Twin when it comes out in 2015.  Or do we stick with KTM and try out the new lightweight 800 Adventure?  Decisions decisions…..

IMG_1958

Next … we off to the Isle of Man TT and Ireland on our KTM 990 SMT……

Chapter 30 – Thailand

After our marathon big bike trip Fanny and I did a few “mini” motorcycling adventures in the Mekong Valley and around the Indo-China region.

First, Thailand, a superb country to motorcycle around and very much geared up for both the adventurous or idling tourist.

First, I managed to escape from Hong Kong and catch a cheap “Air Asia” flight to Bangkok where I hired a Kawasaki Versys 650 to tour around the country for a couple of weeks.

My intention was to ride up to Chang Mai and ride around the Mao Hong Son Loop or perhaps further north and ride the Golden Triangle loop, but I realized I made a mistake by flying to Bangkok (which I did because it was cheap) instead of flying directly to Chang Mai and so I changed my plan and decided to ride around the south of Thailand and do some island hopping.

Later in the year Fanny and I flew to Chiang Mai and hired a Suzuki VStrom 650 and rode the 600+ kilometers around the Mao Hong Son Loop which I have to say is one of most enjoyable rides I have done.  Not technical apart from lots of switch back turns, but great fun and wonderful views.

20140303_144226

Koh Tao, Thailand

IMG_1128

Fellow riders

Thai biking kit ... better than most riders for sure.

Thai biking kit … better than most riders for sure.

IMG_1120

Meeting fellow riders

IMG_1118

Unlike their African cousins, these Asian elephants didn’t try to charge us as soon as they saw or heard our motorcycles.

10257512_10152490704023103_8873804799686558693_n

Riding a Suzuki VStrom around Chiang Mai Loop

01_Mae_Hong

Mae Hong Son Loop …. Highly recommended

Swapping the V-Strom for a Zoomer scooter

Riding a very decent Honda Zoomer scooter around Chinag Mai… why not?

Our hotel for a night or two in Chiang Mai.

Our hotel for a night or two in Chiang Mai. Not bad at all.

The bike .. near end of trip

The Suzuki .. stopping off for another explore around

20140603_130340

The Thais always seem to do things with some style and charm….. unlike their modern Chinese neighbours, most of whom are complete strangers to the concept of style and good taste… and rubbish bins.

On the road .. Suzuki V-Strom 650

On the road .. our Suzuki V-Strom 650… a very good two up tourer for Thailand

The long neck village....

The long neck village…. these wooden ones were the only ones we saw…

A water snake ... the resort was riddles with them. Apparently harmless

A water snake … Apparently harmless

Bueng Pai Farm, Pae, Thailand

Bueng Pai Farm, Pae, Thailand…. thoroughly recommended.

Beautiful places to stay all along the loop.... very enjoyable and relaxing ride. Mae Hong Son loop is excellent

Beautiful places to stay all along the loop…. very enjoyable and relaxing ride. Mae Hong Son loop is excellent

Empty resorts due to Thai military coup... this one very up market and surprisingly cheap.  Bit odd being there on our own with 30 odd staff.

Empty resorts due to Thai military coup… this one very up market and surprisingly cheap. Bit odd being there on our own with 30 odd staff.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

On my solo trip of southern Thailand I wanted to catch up with an old buddy from my Metropolitan police days, PC 673X  (if I remember his number correctly) who had retired to Pattaya with his Thai wife.  “Blackie” and I used to crew the X-ray 2 area car back in the early 80s and respond to 999 calls which meant Blackie hurling a “jam sandwich” SD1 Rover at break neck speed through the streets of Ealing and West London and me hanging on to a doner kebab in one hand and gripping the police radio in the other as I gave a running commentary… or tried to.

In those days we chased the car thieves and robbers until we either caught them or they wrapped their stolen vehicle around a lamp post.  No match for Met police class 1 advanced drivers like Mr. Black in hot pursuit. Back in the 80s Londoners were quite alert to the occasional area car driving at 100 mph along the pavement with “twos and blues” blaring.

I am not sure if British police are allowed to chase robbers and car thieves anymore. It’s probably against their human rights. I expect nowadays with the gormless internet generation permanently bent over and absorbed in texting on their iPhones as they shuffle along that such a car chase down Ealing Broadway would be akin to 10 pin bowling.

And health and safety?  It hadn’t been invented yet.  In those days only lolly pop ladies and Gary Glitter wore hi viz clothing, Benny Hill was on the telly and Maggie was in charge.  Suffice to say, with all these “look back” inquiries into the antics of pretty much everyone back in the 80s I am going to leave it at that.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

sd1 ru

PC 929X Utley with X-ray 2 Area Car early 80s.

sd1

An Area car on the hoof during the 80s. Exciting stuff

I

shutterstock_70386574

Evolution …. its all downhill from here.

A Kai Tak Convention picture of Pattaya.

Pattaya…. looks nice from a distance.

Pattaya-WALKING-STREET

A little bit over the top….. where are all the temples?

20140227_154414

That’s better ……Koh Chang Island on the Kawasaki Versys 650

20140224_115501 - Copy

Bangkok Bike Rentals …. Good bikes

2015-kawasaki-versys-650-lt-green

New 2015 Kawasaki Versys with improved headlight cowling.

2014-Kawasaki-Versys650-ABS2-small

The old Kawasaki Versys, like the one I hired.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

I had been to Phuket many times back in the late 80s when it was actually quite nice, but never to Pattaya. I’ve got nothing against hookers, disco bars, or middle aged men (I is one after all), but its just not my cup of tea or coffee or anything really. There are so many beautiful places to go in Thailand and the rest of South East Asia, so why would you go?

Anyway, I collected the Kawasaki Versys 650 from Bangkok Bike Hire and aimed it in a sort of southerly direction which isn’t that easy in the heart of the bustling and chaotic metropolis of Bangkok.

I was immediately surprised at how quick, agile and comfortable the Versys was. Not bad at all.  I had been given the 2013 version that has a twin cylinder 650cc engine and ABS, but strangely adorned with an ugly cyclops headlight arrangement protruding from the cowling that in my humble opinion spoiled the look of a very capable bike.  I guess due to this negative feedback from many other people the new 2015 model has been restyled and has a vastly improved cowling in keeping with current Kawasaki styling, including an adjustable touring windscreen.

Like many cities in Asia, riding a motorcycle in Bangkok is just as treacherous, if not the most,  and you need to be very cautious and very alert to the other fools on the road, of which there are many. Apparently, like in China, motorcycles are not allowed on the highways, but unlike China its difficult to know what’s a highway and what isn’t.

The signs to get out of Bangkok, or go anywhere else were truly awful and the road construction, diversions and elevated flyovers meant you couldn’t be sure where you are and so it was very easy to get funneled into the wrong lane and into one of the frequent police road blocks manned by Thailand’s finest.

Like much of South East Asia, it is very fair to say that the police are completely useless, AND extremely corrupt. I got stopped fifteen times on this particular ride for nothing more than being on a motorcycle, nearly all around Bangkok and given the shake down for a bribe. But as always I stood my ground and in the end they just let me go. I have never paid a bribe in my life and have zero respect for anyone who does.

It took a couple of hours to get into Pattaya, which after escaping the sprawl of urban Bangkok and having to ride under the elevated highway on uneven roads for a large part of the way was actually pretty easy, if not a tad boring.  Nothing much to see along the way, commercial sprawl and by no means a pretty bit of Thailand.

Pattaya is a huge sleazy party town on the coast just south of Bangkok and the first thing I noticed when I arrived were thousands of thuggish looking Russians with their glum looking “Katie Price” girlfriends milling about looking predatory and loutish.

As Fanny and I saw all too often in Egypt these new upwardly mobile Russians all appeared joyless, unfriendly and damned right depressing. There were also thousands of middle aged and repulsive looking European men sitting in bars, or waddling hand in hand with girls a third their age.  I presume they weren’t walking them to school!  And then there were, more surprisingly, regular family groups who for some reason or another had decided to go to Pattaya on holiday.  Why?  Who knows?  With the possible exception of Gaza, Luton and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, its got to be the most inappropriate place on earth to bring your children on holiday. But each to their own.

There were streets and streets full of neon lit massage parlours, go go bars, hotels of various descriptions, “Old China Hand” style English pubs, small trucks blaring out adverts for Thai boxing events, and miles and miles of street stalls selling colourful summer clothes and tourist crap made in China.  Oh, and there are some beaches and sea…which are quite nice in a “here we go, here we go, Torremolinos”  “Watney’s Red Barrel” sort of way. I guess if you live next to beach like I do in Arniston is South Africa all other beaches are a bit of a disappointment…. with the exception of Felpham in Sussex…

I met my friend Blackie in one of the many coffee shops along the sea front and he looked almost the same as he did in the 80s, except for being a lot more tanned. I followed him on his Honda moped back to a residential part of Pattaya where he lived with his missus. After using me as an excuse to go out, we did some sight seeing that involved copious amounts of Chang beer, and types of beer,  blurry neon lights, ping pong balls and balancing on the back of his scooter shitfaced. As with many of my activities with Mr Black over the last three decades the “Kai Tak Convention” prohibits saying any more.

Traffic madness in Bangkok

Traffic madness in Bangkok

ThailandFarang6-500x333

Oh dear!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After an early start the next day, a Thai noodle and egg breakfast and a very detailed briefing on where to go and what to see from my friend I headed off to Koh Chang.  Mr Black is also a biker, extremely well traveled, has ridden across India and Nepal on a Royal Enfield Bullet, and his recommendations and observations were spot on and very useful.

Unimaginatively, and perhaps a little confusing, Thailand has two “Koh Changs. One is off the west coast and one near the border with Cambodia. I went to the latter which involved a two hour bike ride and an hours ferry ride from the coastal town of Trat to the island.

http://wikitravel.org/en/Ko_Chang

I highly recommend Koh Chang. Of the four islands I hopped across it is perhaps my favourite. After exploring the island’s tracks and trails on the very capable Kawasaki Versys I found an idyllic spot on the less developed north east side of the island next to a perfect beach.

It was much like the best places I have stayed in South East Asia. No electricity, a very simple thatched beach huts with a little veranda on stilts, a simple bed covered in a mosquito net, and facing the sea. In fact at high tide the sea came right up to the hut and nothing beats the soporific sound of the breeze rustling through palm trees and the gentle lapping of the waves. There was a larger thatched building nearby with a kitchen and a common area with hammocks and easy chairs where you could get local Thai food and tourist fodder like banana pancakes and smoothies. It was very good book reading and mellowing out territory. A big thumbs up.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

World___Thailand_Houses_on_the_water_on_the_island_of_Koh_Chang__Thailand_061826_

Beach huts on Koh Chang

20140227_163919

20140228_115916

Ferry to Koh Chang.

20140227_163049

Wait for road to be built … no hurry

20140227_162916

Seen worse

20140227_161816

Typical road

20140227_161310

Bit rutted by the rain and trucks

20140227_155141

Camping spot, Koh Chang

20140227_160557

Posher huts on the beach

20140227_123941

My place for a few nights

20140226_173737

The main place with hammocks and a kitchen full of food and beer…. right on the beach.

20140227_123542

Nice and relaxing

20140226_173708

Koh Chang

20140226_171903

20140226_172015

Home sweet home…. my hut for a few days… what more do you need. Slept perfectly.

20140226_102835

Out on the Kawasaki for an explore around Koh Chang island… resisted the urge to ride down the river bed.  Every scratch costs.

20140226_173922

My hut in there somewhere

20140226_174155

Million star hotel

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

One afternoon while wading about in about eight inches of seawater I got stung on my ankle by a stingray. Apparently they are quite common in such waters and its easy to inadvertently tread on one as they are well camouflaged against the sand. I can’t begin to describe how painful it was and I actually thought for a while that I might die. An over reaction, but my landlady came to my rescue and I had my foot plunged in almost boiling water that was actually less painful than the sting.

Despite the excruciating pain, I was told the sting had only grazed my ankle bone and was lucky it hadn’t penetrated further.  The hot water actually breaks down the structure of the poison and so the pain from the sting eased off steadily over the next few hours, but I was left with a throbbing lower leg for about 3 weeks. Moral of the story… don’t tread on a stingray… they sting.

I explored the island for a couple of days, going off road and climbing trails, visiting little villages and remote beaches, and then decided to ride back to the mainland and ride north along the border of Cambodia and through the villages and small towns and head back in the general direction of Bangkok through the eastern hills. I had originally planned to keep the Versys and ride to Koh Samui, Koh Tao and Koh Pha Ngan but decided instead to fly and then hire a smaller bike when I got there.

The ride back to Bangkok was excellent and I managed to find what I was looking for.  Jungle trails, mountain roads, forests, and remote villages. In the cities and tourist areas the Thai food is mellowed down like it is in Thai restaurants in London and other western cities, but the secret to getting the authentic deal is to ask for “old man’s tom yam gai” or “old man’s papaya salad” or whatever and then you get the highly spiced and original hot dishes. They always asked me if I was sure this is what I wanted and studied me carefully as I tucked into the chillies with sweat dripping profusely from the tip of my nose into the bowl of food.

In the hills and small villages there were street side hawker stalls and little restaurants selling bags of red and spicy chai tea and a smorgasbord of Thai specialties like Pad Thai, Tom Yum, and fruit.  All excellent.

I eventually got back to Bangkok via the scenic route, although the last 50 kilometers were through the usual traffic chaos and returned the bike early and made my way to the central city airport to get an Air Asia flight to Surat Thani.

Exploring around the island... good bike

Exploring around the island… good bike

Parked up on ferry and ready to head back to Trat

Parked up on ferry and ready to head back to Trat

The other boats

The other boats

Ferry

Ferry

Time for a poo ... this'll doo

Time for a poo … this’ll doo

Quiet coastal locations that only a bike will get you to.

Quiet coastal locations that only a bike will get you to.

Bit bigger than most of the bikes, that are usually Honda 110s.

Let Good Things Happen… quite right

Exploring

Exploring

Soi Cowboy.

Soi Cowboy.

Fixed that bridge yet?

Fixed that bridge yet?

I was traveling extremely light and only had a small rucksack, just as I like it.  From Surat Thani there are several overnight ferries that you can take and sleep throughout the journey on basic mats side by side like sardines with other travelers and arrive at one of the three islands in the early morning.  I decided to start in the north with Koh Tao and then hop between the island. And that’s what I did.

Koh Tao is a very pretty island and I hired a Honda CRF 250 trail bike to explore and get around. Beware though!  There is a scam going on across Thailand where the bike renters take your passport and only return it if you return the bike in the original condition it was hired in.. or they say it was hired in!

Of course, many people either crash or drop their scooters and motorcycles and only get their passports back when a huge payment for damages has been made. Some of these payments are significant and the cause of many disputes, but the police are all in collusion with the bike hire operators and so the unfortunate bike hirer is on a hiding to nothing.

The bike renters also try and charge for existing scratches and scraps and so the wise technique is: firstly to find as reputable a bike hire firm as possible (not always easy); secondly, to photograph the entire bike and all its faults and scratches and show this to the vendor so that he knows you are on the ball;  and thirdly, if at all possible leave a cash deposit rather than your passport.  Leaving your passport with someone you don’t know in a foreign country isn’t a very wise thing to do. It can be stolen or replicated and you could find your passport being used for all sorts of scams and frauds, even involved in human trafficking and illegal immigration as was discovered during the investigation into the disappearance of Flight MH370 – which happened to occur very near to where I was in Koh Samui at the time.

southern-islands

The islands

01_KohTaoFerry

One of the overnight ferries…Koh Tao, Koh Pha and Koh Samui I took the longer Koh Tao and worked my way south. Passengers sleep on mats side by side

zm_angthong_viewpoint_072005

Beautiful islands and turquoise warm seas

crf

my rental Honda 250 …very nice indeed … perfect for Koh Tao

Nitrox-Enriched_air_course_koh_tao_impian_divers-ENG

Off scuba diving

Off scuba diving

Koh Tao... lovely beaches. This is near where British tourists were murdered. Thai police eefed it up and bashed up some Burmese to confess... why I am surprised

Koh Tao… lovely beaches. This is near where British tourists were murdered. Thai police eefed it up and bashed up some Burmese to confess… why I am surprised

Dive boats and divers... big business on Koh Tao

Dive boats and divers… big business on Koh Tao

Day out diving in Koh Tao

Day out diving in Koh Tao

20140303_101110

My rental for the island … good bike

20140303_112605

Riding into the hills .. very steep .. lots of youngsters fally off their bikes and getting Thai tattoos

Koh Tao

Koh Tao

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Most tourists, especially young girls seemed to have “Thai Tattoos” on their arms and legs. Not the Chinese characters for “wardrobe” or some other lost in translation hieroglyph, but cuts and large grazes due to coming off their hired scooters. Why?  Because basically they have little or no skill riding motorcycles and initially they think its easy until they inevitably hit a patch of gravel or find they can’t slow down fast enough on the windy bends coming down the steep hills and gacross most of Koh Tao.

Some of the accidents were more serious, especially because many of the tourists don’t wear helmets, or wear poor quality helmets that are not properly secured to their heads. The local ambulance service was certainly fully employed racing to and from the hospital and various accident scenes.

Koh Tao is also famous for diving and I had several scuba dives while I was there. There are many dive centres and it seems you are spoiled for choice. Pretty good facilities, good diving gear, but very crowded. I have my PADI advanced open water certificate, but I am not a very experienced or well traveled diver. That said I thought the diving around the  Red Sea in Egypt was much better and had prettier fish than Koh Tao.

A day or so later I took the ferry to Koh Pha Ngan which is a magnet for hippies and ravers as it has the full moon beach parties, and even half moon beach parties.  I never went to one, too old, don’t like smoking, and basically couldn’t be arsed, but I did find the rest of the island very interesting and I hired another CRF 250 and explored the road less traveled.

Because many of the hippies and partying foreigners seem to treat the island rather disrespectfully, I did notice that the locals were not overly friendly and only smiled when they were relieving you of your cash, if indeed they smiled at all.  Very un-Thai like. Blackie later told me that most of the Thais on Koh Pha Ngan are not indigenous to the island and perhaps should be a lot more grateful for the incomes and livelihoods they make from the lucrative tourism industry. In any case, Koh Pha Ngan is a not bad place by any means, but is perhaps my least favourite of the four islands I visited in Thailand.

I then took yet another ferry to Koh Samui, which is regarded as a rather luxurious and up market island with very nice hotels and resorts. It also has budget hotels and resorts and is quite big. Its very much geared up for general tourism with snake parks, elephant rides, botanical gardens, water sports, dirt biking, quads, safaris, cruises etc….  In fact, the island has an airport, but seems to only be served by Thai Airlines which is considerably more expensive than the other airlines in the region. Instead of a Honda CRF 250, which I really like,

I hired a funky Honda Zoomer X for just a few baht a day. This scooter has a 108 cc engine and is absolutely superb. It looks good, very well built (it is a Honda after all), is technologically quite advanced with a hi tech automatic transmission, easy to ride, surprisingly fast, sips fuel, comfortable, space to store a helmet under the seat, and to my mind the perfect run around city bike.

20140301_094736

I have no idea what this picture is about…must be Koh Chang as the Kawasaki is there.

Honda Zoomer X .... love this bike.

Honda Zoomer X …. love this bike.

20140306_140359

Koh Samui …. on another Honda Zoomer. Love this bike.

Zoom

Zoomer-X

20140307_122125

Climbing up into the hills of Koh Samui

20140307_151406

Aaah , lunch. Tres Bien.

20140308_143751

Super beaches in Thailand , although becoming noticeably more polluted over the years.

I managed to ride up into the mountains, ride on rough gravel roads in the interior jungle and find charming little beach bars, one claiming to have the greatest selection of Belgium beers in the whole of Asia. My only regret was that Fanny was not with me. I had a reasonable amount of free time as I was working on a project basis for various investigation firms in China, but Fanny had a full time job at the time.

However, this was to change for me and I was hired by a Asia Pacific professional services firm called Censere and had a start date which meant for the first time in three years I would have a full time job and they would expect me to go into work “every day”!!!

So, a month or so later, just before I started work Fanny and I flew to Chiang Mai, and in addition to some emergency dentistry that had been neglected of the previous three years, we decided to ride the Mae Hong Son Loop, all 600 kilometers and 1,864 switchbacks and corners through the jungle, forests and plantations and rode close to the border with Burma.

We visited Pae, Doi Inthanon National Park, Wat Phra, and Vachiratharn waterfalls. This time we hired a Suzuki V-Strom 650, a bike only recently imported into Thailand and I have to say another very good bike and a bit of a surprise.  Quite large in size and high spec with a 19 inch front wheel and 17 inch rear, 66 BHP in power, and designated as a mid sized dual purpose bike. Perfect for the two up trip through the mountain roads with a North Face bag of luggage. Not a very fast bike, but fast enough.

The first place we got to was Pae, famous over the years for being on the hippy trail, and indeed quite a few of the banana pancake and lentil eaters still wandering around in their hippy uniforms. We rode slightly out of the town and found a resort called Bueng Pai Farm on the banks of a big fish pond run by a very mellow, but hard working Japanese woman who had settled in Thailand.

http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g303916-d1641585-Reviews-Bueng_Pai_Farm-Pai_Mae_Hong_Son_Province.html

We hired a bungalow on stilts above the lake, together with fishing rods to catch carp and perch and then release them back into the water. These fish earned their keep by being caught several times a day. Quite alarmingly, I suppose for the first time, we saw that the resort was infested with water snakes that were quite large and quite fast. Our host said she encouraged them as they were part of the ecology and that they were not “very” poisonous. Ah hem!  Bueng Pai Farm prides itself on being organic and environmentally friendly and we had a swim in their naturally cleaned pool and before we set off again had their signature breakfast of some of the best mueslis, eggs and toast I have ever eaten.

Pae

Typical Thai scenery

Pae

Bueng Pai Farm

Fanny relaxing on patio

Fanny relaxing on the patio of our suite

Bueng Pai Farm, Pae, Thailand

Bueng Pai Farm, Pae, Thailand

Super riding route. If you don't fancy a DIY trip, you can join an organised group to riding in north Thailand, including all the bikes, hotels, and a knowledgeable guide.

Super riding route. If you don’t fancy a DIY trip, you can join an organised group to riding in north Thailand, including all the bikes, hotels, and a knowledgeable guide.

Relaxing between riding

Relaxing between riding

V-Strom is really good bike. Some people said its too big for Mae Hong Son loop, but two up with Fanny no worries at all.

A brand new V-Strom from Chiang Mai. Some people said its too big for Mae Hong Son loop, but two up with Fanny no worries at all. Good bike to hire.

Empty resorts due to Thai military coup... this one very up market and surprisingly cheap.  Bit odd being there on our own with 30 odd staff.

Empty resorts due to Thai military coup… this one very up market and surprisingly cheap. Bit odd being there on our own with 30 odd staff.

Some other residents who stayed at the resort...

Some other residents who stayed at the resort…

Packing up again and back on the road again

Packing up again and back on the road again

Hiking in the forests in north Thailand

Hiking in the forests in north Thailand

Makes a change from wallowing in rivers and lakes.

Makes a change from wallowing in rivers and lakes.

This big chap (about a foot long) was outside our hut making a loud clicking noise.

This big chap (about a foot long) was outside our hut making a loud clicking noise.

Mountains and forested hills and valleys along the 600 odd kilometers

Mountains and forested hills and valleys along the 600 odd kilometers

Mangoes

Mango trees

20140606_094827

Gold and temples…

More gold....

More gold….

Lattee?

Good morning!

IMG_1145

Fanny and I doing the tourist thing around the old town… Seems you can’t have too much gold.

Swapping the V-Strom for a Zoomer scooter

Swapping the Suzuki V-Strom for another Honda Zoomer -X scooter to explore the city.

A typical day on the road...

A typical day on the road…

Doi Inthanon National Park.

Doi Inthanon National Park near Chiang Mai

We carried on through the jungles the next day and then started to swing south again near the border with Myanmar where we started to see signs for the “long neck people” village. A bit of a controversy as some people saw this as exploitation of a minority tribe and in effect a human zoo.

However, when we got there it was clear the exploitation was the other way around and that the tourists were getting ripped off. Based upon posters depicting some old dear with an unusually elongated and brass ringed neck and the accompanying historical narrative, a tribe of displaced Burmese did cross the border into Thailand and settle in a refugee camp. And the women did, by tradition, keep adding rings to their neck as they grew up until they were giraffe like in appearance, much like tribes we saw in Kenya. But over the years the tribe had slowly integrated into Thai society and the traditions had slowly faded out.

However, not to miss an opportunity to make a few buck some of the girls do have rings round their necks and wear traditional clothes and display themselves to paying tourists who are bused in on day trips. Fanny and I were of course on a motorcycle and as is our common practice we took a short cut to the village along the country trails and approached the village from another direction.

Along the way we saw the girls getting ready for their day in the “long neck” village and getting out of their modern Thai clothes and into traditional garb. They did have rings on their necks but only about four or five and probably as many as you or I could put round our necks if we wanted to. I asked Fanny if she wanted to go and look at the village and she did.  I was partly annoyed at the rip off,  partly indifferent, and wholly disinclined to spend 5 dollars to go and have a look at a “human zoo” and so I stayed in the real village and looked after the bike and our kit while having a drink with the local touts and villagers.

Fanny paid her entrance fee and went off only to come back 15 minutes later and tell me that it was indeed the same girls we saw earlier who were now selling tourist crap at some stalls in the village. Any really long necked women?  Apparently not, and so we headed off with a new goal to find some elephants and waterfalls, and more importantly dinner.

We found a rather luxurious resort and were very pleasantly surprised to be offered a very nice suite at next to nothing. In fact the whole resort just had Fanny, myself and about 30 staff in it. Why?  Well just before we arrived in Thailand there was a military coup and this had obviously put “normal” people off.

As veterans of riding into revolutions in Africa and the middle east on our motorcycle expedition we realized this meant everything would be cheap and negotiable and Thailand was just the same. Its a country that thrives on tourism and does it very well, but when the tourists stop coming it becomes extremely competitive and huge savings can be made if you are bold enough to ask for them.

There was also a curfew which pretty much coincided with the hours Fanny and I are fast asleep, and in any case the curfew got shorter and shorter over the two weeks we were there until it was irrelevant. There were quite a few soldiers and police milling about in Chiang Mai itself, but for the large part the military coup and curfew went unnoticed. Anyway, this resort’s claim to fame was that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had stayed recently, no doubt while Angelina was collecting more ethnic children for her collection.

Interestingly, it was not the first time our paths cross on our expedition as we were next door neighbours to the Pitts when we stayed at my aunts house in Provence, Southern France for a while. We continued on our windy, up and down journey, passing through rain forests and small villages, but also alongside huge stretches of land and hillside where the rainforest had been slashed and burned to such an extent that all there was left was red soil and blackened tree stumps.

The scale of deforestation was a bit of a shock. We were riding in the dry season, but judging by the recent soil erosion and rivers thick with red sediment, the lack of vegetation holding the top soil together must be extremely harmful to the environment. In some areas we saw attempts to start palm oil plantations, but the topography and severe soil erosion was hampering their efforts and all that was left looked like the surface of Mars. We visited some beautiful waterfalls, stayed at a few basic lodges and eventually returned back where we started in Chiang Mai.

Our last day was back in the resort we stayed in called Viang Thapae Resort, which was pretty nice.

http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g293917-d6506831-Reviews-Viang_Thapae_Resort-Chiang_Mai.html

We dropped of the Suzuki V-Strom which had been an excellent bike for our 6 day trip around the “loop” and hired another Honda Zoomer-X scooter for a day to get around Chiang Mai and explore the old town and street markets. Our only negative experience on the whole trip was getting stopped at a road block and being shouted at by a Thai Policeman because I wasn’t carrying my driving license and passport and he was clearly in a bad mood, probably because of the long hours he had to work throughout the curfew.

I was humble, apologetic and pleaded ignorance and he calmed down and let me off.  We then spent our remaining day exploring the old part of the town and eating street food in the night market.  Finally our time was up and so instead of taking a taxi, we hiked from our hotel across town to the airport and within a few hours were back on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.

Next… Vietnam and Cambodia.