The roads in Thailand are generally excellent, even the white roads. Road signs mostly have destinations in Roman as well as Thai (thank goodness). Riding here is great; and British drivers could learn a thing or two from the Thais about using mirrors and indicators.
The banyan tree near Phimai is huge. There are winding paths through the roots, and lots of shady places to picnic under the canopy. I have no idea how old the tree is, but it's certainly the biggest single plant I've ever seen.
I find it amazing that in Britain even a moderate-sized town has no broadband available, and yet a small place in the back of beyond in Thailand has three internet cafes, all with high-speed broadband. The cost is generally 20-30 baht an hour (that's about 30-45p), although the one I'm sitting in now in Surin charges 15 baht.
I'm staying at Pirom's House, a nice little teak guesthouse near the town centre.
problem. Very relaxed.
I was stopped at a checkpoint yesterday (they're usually too busy scraping their jaws off the tarmac to stop me). The nice young policeman asked "Where you from?". "England". He squeaked and patted my arm. "You go". The world (so far) seems to be full of nice young policemen.
Tomorrow I'll be meeting the chaps from the BMW Club of Thailand at a place east of Ubon, and on Sunday we go to Laos for a few days. Not many roads in Laos, and what there are have a pretty awful reputation.
The sealed roads in Laos (both of them) are very good; yesterday five of us blared 500 miles from Pakse, via Savannakhet, to Vientiane and had a lovely ride.
The rest of the roads are mainly dirt tracks, but very well maintained so it's possible to do 50-ish between villages (providing there's no-one in front - too much dust).
Laos is a lovely country. Very unspoiled. Tan said it's like Thailand was 20 years ago. It produces the best coffee in the world, and as you ride through the countryside you smell wafts of roasting beans from time to time.
BMW Club of Thailand foregather for the Laos trip
I had a great few days riding with the Thailand BMW Club chaps. We met near the border at Chong Mek, crossed over, then rode down south to see some spectacular rapids on the Mekong. This involved a lot of dirt road and a ferry. Said ferry was one of those flat affairs, with very dodgy wooden planking. We had to ride up a plank to get on it, and getting off was horrible - a baulk of timber to bridge between the deck and the soft sandy beach, then a soft sandy slope up for a couple of hundred yards until the dirt road started in the village. Great fun on a fully-loaded bike. I managed to stay upright (just) albeit rather inelegantly.
The company was 14, mostly on BMWs and multinational: mysef (British); an American, a Frenchman and two Serbs (all Bangkok residents); three Singaporeans (who'd ridden up to join us and for Chiang Mai Bike Week); and the rest Thai. Of the BMWs, 4 x 1200GS, 1 x 80G/S (mine), 1 x 100GSPD (American chap), 1 x F650GS (Bangkok BMW dealer) and the rest 1100/1150GSs.
Yesterday most of the chaps dropped back into Thailand at Savannakhet, and the Frenchman, American, two of the Singaporeans and myself made it up to Vientiane. We arrived late (8:30) and Bertrand hadd arranged with his friend Olivier to meet us at a great French restaurant near the Arc du Triomphe; we were taken straight in and treated to a superb meal with plenty of Merlot (Olivier wouldn't let us pay). It then transpired that we were to stay at Olivier's house last night so we didn't have to find hotels or anything. This morning Bertrand and the others set off back to Thailand over the Friendship Bridge, and Olivier gave me a house key and told me I'm welcome to stay as long as I want. The hospitality here is unbelievable.
So, this morning I was able to do some bike maintenance (and wash some of the bright orange dust off it). The indicator brackets I ordered have already arrived with Bruce in Bangkok (thank you Moto-Bins), which is just as well because they're now both broken and the stalks secured to the brushguards with cable ties and gaffer tape. Although the bike is still smoking due to the stuck crankcase breather it's not using too much oil, and it appears to have no objection to 85 octane fuel. After the first dirt road day the nut/bolt fixing the front left bottom pannier frame had disappeared, but I replaced them and since then nothing else seems to have chaken loose. The BMW agent from Bangkok was with us and we've done a deal whereby when I get back there I can use their workshop to service and repair the bike in return for showing them how to service an airhead.
Oh yes, the snake. That was at Pirom's House in Surin. I saw the cat apparently having a bit of a go at another - I coiuld see what looked like a paw swiping from behind the chessboard leaning against the house. The paw turned out to be a snake, and as no-one could identify whether it was venomous or not we had to kill it (harder than it sounds) with a garden hoe.
I'm riding the bike around Vientiane in a T-shirt, and no gloves or lid. The max traffic speed here is about 25mph, and it's mostly slower. Saves a lot of carrying stuff around as well.
Vientiane is technically a city, but it's a small town really - smaller than Reading; population 133,000. Not surprising it was closed for the Asean summit. Everyone knows everyone else. The entire town knows that I'm the Englishwoman on a bike who's staying with Olivier (he employs 600 people at his factory).
Yesterday morning I met a Dutchman on a Yamaha TDM850. he came the southerly route through Iran and Pakistan, and we exchanged stories about the desert fuel dump in Pakistan, at Dalbandin between the Iranian border and Quetta. Then a bit later I was riding along and heard hooting behind me. It was a Belgian on a BMW R1100R. He's Thierry, who's the Chef de Mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Laos; and, of course, he knows Olivier. He competed in (and finished) the Paris-Dakar in 1989 riding for the Honda team on an Africa Twin.
The further I get from home the smaller the world becomes.
Spent the last two nights at Phonsavan, which is in the middle of the Plain of Jars, which is also more or less in the middle of the saturation bombing by the US during their rather better publicised exercise next door in Vietnam.
While there I decided to have a go at getting through the border to Vietnam - the closest crossing was only 140km away at Nan Cam. So off I went yesterday morning and arrived at around 11am. The Lao border chap said there was no point doing me until around 1:30 as Vietnam didn't open until 2. So I was duly done at 1:30 and pootled off to Vietnam. Great fun where the trucks had churned everything in the rainy season and it's now hardened into - well, use your imagination. *I* got into Vietnam OK, but unfortunately the bike's too big. They've reinstated the requirement for a special permit for a bike over 150cc, which is only obtainable in Hanoi. Bugger. So I retrieved my passport and motocrossed back to the Lao border to throw myself on their mercy (exit stamp in passport and single-entry visa cancelled). No probs - exit stamp annulled and visa uncancelled (shades of Bulgaria in 1996).
Did think I might be able to have a go at one or both of the other possible border crossings, but today I bumped into Paolo and Massi (Italians) on an R1100GS who'd tried the same thing and had no luck. They're doing RTW in the opposite direction to me, and say I'll love Bolivia.
So, it's on to Plan C; can't get to Cambodia from Laos with the bike (the only crossing is pedestrians only), so I have to go back into Thailand and take the only possible crossing from there, then back into Thailand again. Heigh-ho.
Half a banana tree
Eight-year-old monk on a day-glo pink fairy cycle
Lunch, I imagine, as I've seen none (in Japan it was mostly chipmunks with the occasional monkey).
* Enormous poinsettia bushes rampaging over the mountains.
* The little chef where they'd poured me a small glass of cold beer before I'd even got off the bike.
* Christmas tree and tinsel in the bar on the verandah overlooking the Mekong river.
* Wonderful log fire in the hotel at Phonsavan (bloody cold up in the mountains).
* Taking care where I go behind a tree by the road due to the prevalence of UXO (unexploded ordnance - a child a week is killed by it around here).
* Met Fred the Dutchman again in Luang Prabang as well as a nice young couple I'd met at the youth hostel in Phitsanulok.
Made it to Siem Reap today (Cambodia) which is where Angkor Wat is.
It's about 95 miles from the Thai border along National Highway 6.
The first 30 miles consists of a series of large and fairly deep potholes, each ringed with a sliver of crumbling tarmac. I followed the moped in front as he seemd to know where he was going, and on the premise that if he could do that route so could I.
The next 43 miles (see how accurate I can be when I try) consisted of no tarmac, lots of variously-sized sharp stones and rocks, with the occasional nice soft sandy up and down on and off a bridge made of rickety planks. The locals in both ordinary cars and 4x4s are in training for the Dakar, as are some of the trucks and buses. It is illegal to ride with headlights on in Cambodia, especially at night, but most people ignore that rule so that they have a chance of being seen through the dust clouds. How I got here without a puncture or three is nothing short of miraculous (or it could be those Russian inner tubes). It was a three-shower day so I've run out of towels - I do wish the hotels wouldn't provide white ones; it's very embarrassing.
The last 22 miles was sealed and I was able to get into top gear, although the corrugated surface prevented progress at much more than 30mph.
So I'm taking the day off tomorrow to do sightseeing
I'm back in Bangkok again, and this afternoon Sonja took me to Bumrungrad. I'll tell you about that later.
Yesterday I managed the ride from Phnom Penh to Bangkok in around 12 hours. It's only about 450 miles and a border crossing, but more than 10% of it was unsealed road and worse. I rang Bruce when I'd crossed the border and filled the tank (fuel is an horrendous price in Cambodia - nearly $1 a litre; and the pumps are calibrated in US dollars rather than riels) and we arranged a place I could find in Bangkok to meet from where he'd come out and lead me to his and Sonja's apartment. Which is what happened; and not only that but he had Bombay Sapphire. Who says there are no such people as angels?
The Angkor temples at Siem Reap are pretty much off the 'WOW' scale, especially Angkor Wat itself. I hired a nice young man called Siul for the day (well, I would, wouldn't I?) who conducted me around in his tuk-tuk (in Cambodia this is a two-seat articulated trailer attached to the back of a 100cc moped). It's fortunate that Cambodia doesn't have a Health and Safety Executive, as there's absolutely no way any tourists would be allowed anywhere near any of this stuff in the UK or most of Europe.
Actually, Bumrungrad is a hospital (but the name got you going for a couple of ticks, didn't it?). When I woke up this morning my left foot was numb and my left leg felt a bit strange, so I thought I'd slept on it oddly. The foot remained numb and leg remained strange. So, Sonja took me to Bumrungrad. You know that thing where they test your reflexes by hitting you just under the kneecap with a hammer? Always works, doesn't it? Not on my left leg it doesn't; right foot flies up as per normal, left leg sits there and sulks. Neurological, trapped nerve or something. So, vitamins, some other pills I'm about to check out on the web, no riding, see quack again in a week (unless it gets worse before). Have to admit I've never been to a hospital with valet parking before, and they have monitors in the Starbucks so you can see if it's your turn.
I'm begining to feel like the Rain God in the Hitchhiker's Guide. Quakes and other disasters seem to be following me around. The tally so far is four quakes and two typhoons.
This one was felt a little in Bangkok (they evacuated the 64-floor Banyan Tree Hotel amongst others), but I slept through it (it happened around 8:30am and it *was* Boxing Day).
However, there is devastation over a huge area, as you've probably gathered. I'm rearranging my route a little as there's no point my going anywhere near Phuket, obviously, and there are many places further south I'll have to avoid - roads have been washed away and that sort of thing. We sat here yesterday all day watching BBC World Service TV (the Asian service) which had full coverage, and as more and morereports came in it became almost unbelievable.
Went for my new tyres this morning, and even in Bangkok there's a kind of shellshock at the catastrophe. A pair of Dunlop D605s, an inner tube, and fitting cost around 50 quid - would have been more than twice that in the UK. Oh, and that included a cup of tea and a Bridgestone T-shirt.
An APB went out on the ex-pat grapevine this morning for English/French/German-speaking people to look after tourists brought to BKK, whether injured, bereaved, orphaned or whatever.
So Sonja and I went and registered ourselves, then went off to the Red Cross to give blood.
Blood donations: there isn't a culture of that in Thailand, but an appeal went out in the Bangkok Post. So Sonja and I went down to the Red Cross today; it was amazing.
Hundreds of people - Thais, ex-pat Westerners, tourists, all queueing to give blood. The Thais were being lectured in the queues by the Westerners about having a good breakfast before donating (many were fainting, because of unfamiliarity and from shock); a couple of Thai film stars came along with their bodyguards and film crews, but that's good because it was on the local news and encouraged more locals to donate. The response was terrific.
We've watched the BBC World Service with growing horror. On Boxing Day morning we felt nothing here in Bangkok, although those in the high-rise blocks certainly felt the earthquake. I turned on the BBC at around 2pm (six hours after the initial quake) and was horrified. And it's become worse hour on hour and day on day.
From a personal and totally selfish point of view it means I have to stick around here for a while (how dreadful) as my only route is south - Malaysia, Singapore, Sumatra.
But it's good to be able to help out, if only on a rather trivial basis. If I were in the UK I could throw a credit card at it and feel good. Here, one needs to be able to do a bit more than that, and I'm fortunate that I can.
With apologies to John Scott Heinecke (nice guy with R100GS), I include here his email to me today: "Hope you still in BKK. I am down in Phuket helping with disaster. It is a nightmare and a mess. I will send you an update later."
This thing is affecting absolutely everyone. Even the rich. Even the powerful. The King's grandson died. The family who owns the Peninsula Hotel (no you can't afford it) is missing. Speak to anyone here and they know someone, or there's a family member, or . . .
I'm extremely lucky that I'm staying with a great family who seem to be very unwilling to let me go and are begging me to abuse their hospitality. And I've made great friends with Taptim the maid.
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