March 14, 2001 GMT
Singin' the Chiang Mai blues

Thailand: Chiang Mai: It's cold.

I stare slack-jawed into my Ovaltine and listen to the rain dripping listlessly from my cheap plastic rain cape. Nearby stands a lifeless XT600. Her motor is cold, and her once-jaunty mirrors droop pathetically in the downpour.

Where did it all go wrong? What could possibly have happened to this man that he resorts to hot malty beverages? Let us examine the evidence....

In February I found myself in Kathmandu, Nepal, where the realisation finally penetrated my tiny intellect that Things Would Have To Be Done to the bike if it was going to carry me any further on this ill advised jaunt.

For a start, I ordered a replacement alloy rear wheel to replace the badly buckled cheap steel item, which had been causing me grief since Pakistan. I had wobbled across the subcontinent on this damn thing, leaving behind a trail of broken spokes and instantly wealthy wheel-straightening wallahs, and had at length been advised by one overlander (thanks Rob) to bin the thing before it decided to bin me. I was also made aware of the fact that my rear spring had the rigidity of a wet marshmallow, and that my shock absorber was completely useless except as a paperweight.

Australian Dirt Bike Sales of Brisbane had a suitable wheel (i.e. one with the traditional round shape, to replace the kind of banana-shaped profile that I had been experimenting with), and Rob assured me that a knackered shock could be temporarily ameliorated by increasing the preload on the spring to maximum.

Only trouble was that it already was at maximum. So I had a problem - which was solved by the application of several Nepali mechanics, a spring compressor, a dozen massive steel washers normally used in the repair of Caterpillar bulldozers (I kid you not) and the biggest Stillson wrench I have ever seen. I can provide diagrams if any of you care....

Nepali bodge artists at work.

Nepali bodge artists at work

I then made two momentous decisions:

A) To go trekking round the Annapurna circuit near Pokhara, and B) To cancel my plans to fly from Delhi to Bangkok (which would have entailed re-entering India - an appalling prospect), and fly instead from the much more user friendly and conveniently sited Kathmandu.

Decision A was inspired, a stroke of genius, a masterly synthesis of cause and effect resulting in one of the most impressive and memorable experiences of my life.

Decision B, unfortunately, sucked. But I didn't learn this until later....

Connor and Tibetan lama and wife.

Connor with Tibetan lama and wife


I returned from the Annapurna trek dusty but fulfilled. My new wheel had been dispatched as promised from Oz, and was by now languishing in a customs warehouse at Kathmandu airport. I trudged out there with heavy heart.

I have played the amusing game of importing bike parts before (in Pakistan), and I know from bitter experience that the word for "customs official" in many Asian languages is the same as the word for "baboon's arse". (I think....

As I rolled up to the anonymous and scruffy warehouse in the industrial estate adjoining the airport, the initial signs were not good. Lots of moody looking uniforms with shotguns........lots of Shouting Blokes and Pointing Blokes and Jumping Up And Down Irate Blokes and Virtually Apoplectic Blokes in civilian dress who may (or may not) have been customs officials, manhandling (and frequently dropping) various crates of peoples' precious possessions....... and, as is characteristic of any bureaucratic procedure in Asia, mountains and mountains of needless paperwork requiring signatures from various self-important flunkies up and down the tortuous chain of command before you even get to see your parcel, much less get to grip it in your sweaty hands....

I enlisted some help from one guy whose role in the building was ambiguous and might best be described as "clearing agent". This man's self appointed task was to take command of my paperwork, and kind of deflect difficulties, not so much facing them head on, as side stepping them and allowing them to slide gently past.....

We hit early trouble, when the invoice for the consignment surfaced. Being honest traders, the dirt bike company had meticulously recorded the exact value of my new wheel, oil filter and other goodies as an invoice for three hundred-odd US dollars. However, this would incur he usual punitive customs duty - amounting to around ninety US dollars. This is a truly stupid and unnecessarily harsh rule, since I wasn't importing these items for sale in Nepal, but to put on my bike and leave the country! But that's how the system works, and I had been stung in similar fashion in Pakistan. However, with only minimal prompting, we managed to "lose" the invoice, and magically my parcel was re-designated as "personal effects".

A few more signatures on my growing bundle of documents, and I was escorted past the line of bored shotgun-toting guards to freedom, with my coveted parcel. My "agent" stuck with me like glue until we negotiated a mutually acceptable fee for his services, and off I went. I don't really endorse any form of corruption, but it can't be denied that at times it does make things decidedly more expeditious. Hopefully there will come soon a time when this sort of thing is not necessary, and all the countries in this big beautiful world have sensible and equitable customs policies, and we join together as a happy international community in love, peace and understanding. And on this day, the leaders of Taleban will be sighted doing the conga in a Bangkok go-go bar, and Ken Duval will be riding to work on a Harley Davidson.

The flight to Bangkok went off without a hitch - except that the cost of freighting the bike by this route was a shocking 580 US dollars, which compares very unfavourably with the Delhi - Bangkok route. (For a full breakdown on the costs of freighting from KTM to Bangkok, drop me an email).In fact, the Delhi option would have been a cool 350 US dollars cheaper. The information to which I had access (at the time I made the decision), suggested a much smaller price difference, and when the final totals were in, I experienced an acute stabbing pain in my financial diverticulum. But the deal was done, my bolt was shot; I and my shrivelled and emaciated wallet travelled to Bangkok on March 1st.

The shock of transplantation to a tropical climate was enormous. Now I know how backpackers feel. You just jump on a plane in a pleasantly coolish and dry Kathmandu and ZAP you're in Bangkok sweating your nuts off in what feels like 100 percent humidity, with unpleasant things going on in your armpits.

Motorcycles are much slower and more suited to my slow-response psyche - also a great way to avoid climate and culture shock. You can keep your bloody jumbo jets, in my humble opinion.

Thai food so far is unbelievably excellent, lots of spicy chicken and pork things on sticks with chillies and ginger and satay-type sauces, and a heavy culinary dependence on organisms out of the ocean with far too many legs and eyeballs and no identifiable face. I have noticed that the mayonnaise you get here also tastes inexplicably of fish. But this aside, the Thais have stormed into the lead as regards scrummy comestibles, leaving the former number one (Pakistan, would you believe) for dead.

After the anarchy of Indian and Nepali roads, it would appear that Thai automobiles run on hidden rails cunningly concealed beneath the tarmac. Here, road rules are strictly adhered to, in contrast with the situation in India, where a one-way system simply represents the majority opinion. I came to endorse this attitude myself, while in India. This may explain why I got booked by the Thai traffic cops on no less than three occasions before I had travelled ten miles on Thai soil!


To be fair, I only actually got a ticket on one of these occasions, (my sin was to travel in a Holy Bus Lane). I deflected a ticket on one other occasion by acting stupid (something I excel at due to natural talent) until the cop got bored and waved me on.

On the final occasion I was in the company of Ken and Carol Duval, heading out of Bangkok on a class of road that is apparently verboten to motorcycles. Unfortunately, due to the shameful lack of psychic powers on our part, we did not know this, and were pulled over by the constabulary. Luckily, the Duval Diplomatic Corps, (i.e. Carol) was on hand. We escaped from the clutches of the cash-obsessed fuzz with minimal difficulty, and everyone was smiling in the end. Except the cop who had originally pulled us over, who was annoyed to have missed out on his baksheesh, and stamped off in poor humour. I gave him a polite "wai" (bow) as he left which hopefully pissed him off even more (Strategic use of Grovelling to Annoy Policemen).

From here we headed west to visit the infamous "Bridge on the River Kwai", and then North towards Chiang Mai, following roads which were incredibly wide, clean, orderly and miraculously free of random livestock of any description.

I looked in vain for people taking a dump at the roadside, and could find none.

Unbelievable!

But luck ran out as we left the historic Kwai. The Monsoon is due to start in around two months time, at the end of the dry season. However, it would seem that no-one has told the Monsoon this. Either that, or it is fed up with being taken for granted, and has decided to start when it damn well pleases. Rain, rain and more rain, pursued us as we rode North, until soggy and dispirited, we holed up in Chiang Mai to await the ending of the biblical floods.

It was here that I discovered that the condition of my front sprocket was deteriorating to the extent that a replacement would shortly be mandatory.

Sprox are available for many big bikes here, but not (you guessed it) the Yamaha. However, the helpful Goodwill motorcycles at Chiang Mai have a solution. By cutting the worn teeth off the outside of the sprocket, and then welding (to the remaining core) the outer portion of one that's in better condition, they can provide you with something that will get you on your way again. Inish' Allah. (I think Allah might be a bit out of his jurisdiction here, but I need all the help I can get). I've heard of re-treads, but never in quite this context. I will report on the success of this idea.......

So here we sit, trapped inside a kind of Thai edition of "Groundhog day" awaiting a break in the weather. Much longer and we will become a tourist attraction, the famous "Soggy Static Bikers of Chiang Mai"....

More when we break out. Connor.


Posted by Connor Carson at 12:00 AM GMT
 



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