Travel Through Thailand on a Harley-Davidson

By Peter Forwood

Thailand on a Harley (15/5/96 - 15/7/96)
Distance 10458 km (40952 km to 51410 km)

This is part of the first section of our around the world trip.
Complete Trip Overview & Map

Coming from  Malaysia

The border crossing from Malaysia to Thailand at Rantau Panjang is not that well used. The officials at the smaller crossing were most impressed with the motorcycle and I believe an error in my paperwork was made here. I was hoping to leave the motorcycle in Bangkok for the six month period between this trip and the next one. I was previously informed that this would not be possible as a two month visa was all I was allowed and that I would need to export the motorcycle on my departure. This did not deter me as the motorcycle could be stored in Malaysia if necessary, a poorer option. (Malaysia has the same requirements, however a carnet is rarely needed to enter Malaysia from Thailand, and there would be no record of the bikes entry and thus no problems for its departure). At the border however the customs officials were persuaded to accept my view that the carnet was valid till 5/2/97 (some nine months) and therefore the motorcycle entry permit should reflect the same dates. With this document in hand I could now travel Thailand for two months, leave the motorcycle there for a further six months before shipping it to Bangladesh for the next section.

Over the border and the first impact was that women here can smile, smile at men, and they did. Not that it was a come on but that their religion and social acceptance allowed them to show happiness and outgoingness, not seen much in Malaysia. The men were also more outgoing which was very apparent by the aggressive driving style.

The first day I rode from the border to Hat Yai. The main southern city. The roads here quite good but the traffic much more dense than Malaysia. An English couple I previously met had their horn stolen in Hat Yai so I was more concerned about security for the motorcycle than usual and booked into a hotel with security parking. It was here that I learnt that Hat Yai was the playground for Malaysian men and tourists. The porter offered to arrange a Thai massage for 100b or a woman short time (one hour) for 500b and long time (all night) 1000b. Men were also available. Whether it was the more upmarket hotel or the fact that I had arrived in Thailand I wasn't sure.

Thailand has many National parks and my first encounter was at Khao Sok. Situated amongst limestone caste, the area has previously been logged and now is requiring added effort to maintain a wilderness appeal. It appears the Thai Govt. is making great effort to protect the parks but at the same time is turning some into recreational parks to attract both local and overseas tourists. Before heading off the next morning I walked one of the many trails seeing little wildlife. The whole trip was a constant battle with leeches and I am sure I removed 50 from my legs. A few were missed resulting in large dried blood patches on the jeans.

One of the many accident vehicles we saw. The ride to the park was somewhat marred by seeing an accident involving a motorcyclist. Whilst the accident was minor the rider died due to the lack of a helmet. He was left lying on the road with only a piece of newspaper covering his face while a policeman directed traffic around him. A sobering situation when you realize how fast life can change. Most motorcyclists here don't wear helmets despite it being the law. It only seems to be enforced in Bangkok. It's not unusual to see three 12-15 year olds on the one small motorcycle hurtling down the highway to see how fast their motorcycle will travel. And they are fast. Thailand bans the manufacture of bikes larger than 150 cc and the import duty on larger motorcycles is prohibitive so the manufactures boost the power to virtually a racing bike for some models of the locally produced 150's. Add to that the importance of macho men who will do anything to save face and you have a potential weapon in every motorcycle. As with Indonesia I was constantly challenged by other motorcycle riders for a drag or street race, but here I was also challenged by trucks and utilities.

Heading now across to the west coast of the peninsula to Laem Son National Park to see the crab eating macaques. The next day north and east to Chumpon for the night. Good road again but there doesn't seem to be any blue metal in this country and so a softer grade of stone is Recycling used tyres for garbage binns etc. used in the roads resulting in a very slippery surface on older roads or in the wet. The road runs alongside the river border with Myanmar for a long distance and there are lookouts where activities on the Myanmar side can be observed. I may have mentioned how important the bike cover has been in protecting the motorcycle from mainly accidental damage or to remove the temptation from the locals to fiddle. Out of sight out of mind. Well today I rode 490 km to get 160 km from where I started. Yes the bike cover was left behind and it was only on arrival in Champhon that it was noticed missing. Just a quick five hours and 340 km and I was back where I started, but with a bike cover. No you can't buy them here, I thought of that.

Off to Hua Hin 300 km north and passed through the narrowest point on the Thailand Peninsula. Hua Hin is a wealthier tourist spot, with tourists mainly from Europe. It was here that I first realized that Thailand is going through a revolution somewhat like the west did in the 60’s. I guess the influence of the west through tourism and television has brought about certain rebel characteristics in the wealthier young who seem to be demanding more freedom. This is coming it the form of motorcycles, smoking, sex, drugs and rebellion of parental control.

Three and a half months on the road in Asia and I realize I have adapted well when this morning I ate a curry for breakfast and didn't think it strange. In fact I didn't even give it a thought until I was half way through breakfast. The Hua Hin locals don't seem too welcoming andMaking cast bronz statues it raised the thought of AIDS. It seems there is a backlash to the west for introducing the disease into their country. A disease that is now spreading and giving Thailand a bad reputation that will effect it economically beyond the human suffering.

North again through Cha Am, Phetchaburi to look at some ancient “Wat's”, and a couple more cave temples, and onto Damnoen Saduak to see the floating markets the next day. I am already realizing there is a limit to caves and wats that one can see. Its a bit like waterfalls, they become just waterfalls after a while unless they are the Victoria or Niagara falls. Well I realize I will soon be watted or caved out a bit like being antiquitied out or templed out depending what you are currently seeing a lot of.

The floating markets are very interesting having been transformed from a past culture to a tourist event. The bartering between boats that goes on before the tourists arrive is as interesting as watching the seven day package tourists getting ripped off. From the markets and onto Ayutthaya. Flat country now all around Bangkok for hundreds of km with heavy traffic and nothing to see but flat cultivation land. Thailand has its own script, i.e. non roman letters, and reading road signs is made difficult due to a lack of recognition. Some signs (in fact the majority of major signs) are in English as well as Thai but once off the main road getting lost is easy. One way of identifying where you are going is to memorize the first character of the town and rely primarily on the distance. Then if you started 100 km out and have travelled 20 km you will be looking for a road sign to 80 km. The name becomes pretty irrelevant then, unless two towns are the same distance away. Woops.

Enormous Buddah, compared to the motorcycle. A long day to Mai Sot on the border with Myanmar (430 km) through Nakhon Sawan and Tak. It is here that the frontier feeling first starts and doesn't leave until the Golden Triangle at the northern tip of Thailand. I visited a few more “Wats” along the way. The amount of money currently being spent on these structures is amazing. They are the centre of religion, education and community life and it seems all the surplus money from the current economic boom in Thailand is being spent on them to outdo the one next door. This seems to have been a trend in Thailand over the centuries. When times have been good enormous amounts of money has been spent on Wats and when times are bad they have been let go to disrepair. Monks also are becoming wealthier which is not acceptable to a large percentage of the population. There are visible signs of monks with money, air conditioned premises, and luxuries greater than the poorer Thai people.

Travel here is inexpensive and the further North the cheaper it becomes. Basic accommodation at around 80b a night and food at around 20b a meal means with petrol and entertainment (without beer) it is only around $A 20 a day.

Karen people have long used Thailand to get away from the problems within Myanmar. There are many refugee camps along the border and some people have lived within these camps for over eight years. The two I visited, one had 6000 refugees and the other 20000 refugees, seemed adequately provided for by international aid agencies. Some refugees were working on farms around the area but the majority had little to do. They were living in grass huts with teak leaf roofs and the area around the huts was well maintained and clean. They have schools and a community TV hall. Not an ideal situation but certainly a bearable one.

Heading North again along the river border through villages undertaking slash and burn agriculture in pockets of the limestone mountains. 240 km and into Mae Sariang. The border roads in Thailand are excellent with the need to have good roads for military purposes, there is usually little traffic. All along this border with Myanmar there are signs of illegal smuggling of teak and cattle with the proceeds often going to the rebel forces within Myanmar.

The hillDrying pastry on racks for spring rolls tribe people here are made up of people settling in the area after repression in their home countries over the past few hundred years. They have come from within all the surrounding countries. Each tribal group has had its own individual culture which is now being lost. When visiting these areas as a tourist it is worth looking at the impact you are having on the continuation of that culture. The younger generation is not adopting the old way of life. Can you blame them when tourists treat their parents as freak shows, staring and photographing them. Most people, young ones in particular, want to be seen as “normal” and not different. It is difficult to convey that you are coming to appreciate their unique culture, not their weird traditions.

Again North to Mae Hong Son and the weeping rear base gasket on the engine is getting worse. It is now a pronounced and steady weep. Out with the silastic and the degreaser and with a silicon bead it should be stopped. Well I later found out that it wasn't because the silicon was still soft underneath. Second attempt later and this time the silicon was applied when the motor was hot and it worked, lasting for over 6000 km till reaching Bangkok. Even then it probably didn't need repair other than I would be travelling 25000 km on the next trip without a Harley dealer.

Well I guessLow labour costs and high vehicle costs lead to efficient vehicle loadings. it had to happen eventually. While travelling the back roads of some hilly areas looking for out of the way spots I came over a hill on dirt, well hard packed wet clay actually, heading downhill incredibly slowly and applying the brakes lightly but obviously not lightly enough and the front wheel gave way into a water rut and down she went. Travelling only slowly I stepped off and lifted my leg over the windscreen leaving the motorcycle resting on its crash bars. No damage other than a slight scratch to the underside of the pannier. As usual everywhere this sort of thing happens there was an audience. A difficult u turn across the narrow sloping road and back the way I had come. 44000 km and the first time she has been down.

One hears of birds nest soup but having visited a swallow nesting cave between Soppong and Chiang Mai there is no way I would ever try the soup. The soup is made from the saliva which sticks the nesting material together. The cave had a river flowing through and there were large colonies of bats and some old human burial wooden coffins placed high up within a side cave. It was an interesting day being capped off seeing a snake swallow a lizard whole. The lizard seemed almost as large as the snake. The road here, not being near the border, deteriorated noticeably. Not the surface necessarily but with long narrow and winding sections with considerable traffic.

Chiang Mai,Many ruined buildings dot the country Probably the best known city in Thailand outside Bangkok. I was surprised at the number of ex-pats deciding that this is where they wish to spend the rest of their days. Many ran businesses, but equally as many seemed to be dropping out and it is easier, more comfortable and cheaper to drop out here than at home. It is here to that you realize that Thai women are no less vain than western women. Some women apply a white or yellow cream to their faces to attempt to make them paler skinned and keep the skin younger looking. They cover their faces with balaclavas when working outside to prevent the ageing of the skin due to sun and wind.

Off for a quick trip up Doi Inthanon, Thailand's highest peak at 2595 metres and the highest I have been with the motorcycle. Despite its height the mountain never gets snow owing to its latitude near the equator. The peak is covered in thick jungle and over the last 40 years elephant, rhinoceros, bear, big cats and monkeys have become extinct within the park. That's only 40 years, within my life time.

No trip to Thailand would be complete without the famous Thai massage. Sorry I am referring to the traditional not the sexual event. You will have to visit Thailand yourself to get a full description of the sexual massage. For 100b or $A5 you get one hour of a body workout where you expend no energy. Wearing only loose cotton pants and top outfit, supplied, the attractive or not so attractive female masseuse manipulates your every muscle into total submission. You walk away feeling drained but relaxed, exhausted but refreshed. On this occasion the room was air conditioned and had facilities for eight massages to be carried out at a time in the one room. This helps to make sure the customer doesn't get the wrong idea about what the establishment provides.

Restfull park with century old temples. Well after a couple of days rest in Chiang Mai and its off to Chiang Rai where after a night's stay off to Mae Salong into the mountains. A must see in Chiang Rai is the hill tribe museum, which gives a conservative balanced view of the different types of hill tribes people and their individual cultures. The road north west, the best so far, with magnificent scenery through hand cultivated hill plots to open forests and mountain peaks. The further north I travel the better the scenery becomes. The road also of good surface and comfortably tight. Travelling slowly though to try and capture all the scenery.

Lunch was a bit unusual. The street vendor had buffalo parts being grilled over a charcoal fire. I used the point and shoot method, and seeing a large piece of meat that contained no fat ordered it. I thought I was ordering grilled heart. It seemed a bit tough for heart, which is usually quite tender, yet it was grainy like heart. After about half way through I realized it was “prairie oyster”, “buffalo balls”, testicles. A bit tough but not too bad. Mae Salong is the most remote town I found in Thailand and being on the border, and not having had much government control in the past, it has developed its own unique way of life, generally left alone by the Thai officials. Here you can smoke opium, buy home brew whisky for 20b a bottle, or 15b with your own bottle, or buy snake or centipede whisky. A small snake or very large centipede is placed into a bottle of whisky where it quickly drowns and the poison contained within the body is transferred to the whisky.

Back down the same road to the highway and up to the northernmost town in Thailand, Mai Sai.

Move with me to Burma,  or go to our next visit to  Thailand .


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Story and photos copyright © Peter and Kay Forwood, 1996-
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