So in my bit on the Bangkok sex trade I mention that there wasn’t room to squeeze in a word about the rest of the Thailand experience, and what an experience it was – from smuggling a motorbike across the border in the mountains to riding through the “no-go” military occupied Pattani, being electrocuted on Phi Phi Island and crashing in the torrential rain in Betong, eating scorpions on Kao Sahn Road to eating at Asia’s #1 restaurant (actually, just the food in general which has been my favourite cuisine so far!), saying goodbye to Lisa after 3 months together on a bike, visiting the bridge over the River Kwai, making a border run to Cambodia, losing keys and picking locks in Kanchanaburi as well as spending the night on a concrete prison floor. Yes, a month in Thailand meant much more to me than than just sex – and here it is:
In the last letter we left off from Penang having just fixed the issue of the regulator bolts eating through the battery. This meant the Sunday deadline for crossing into Thailand had come and gone. Constant delays on the trip to date had meant we did not have time to wait the better part of another week so we had to try. But why did it have to be a Sunday? At 5:00pm? At the most esoteric mountainside border crossing imaginable?
The reason is that you cannot take a foreign vehicle into Thailand without a guided a tour. On top of the extortionate expense, a tour through such a large and fascinating country would have contained us to a devastatingly strict and limited itinerary. It also would have flown in the face of what the journey was about – choosing your own path, freedom, autonomy. No, if this trip was to be done, it had to be done ‘right’ (albeit slightly “unlawfully”).
The crackdown on foreign vehicles had spawned from a Chinese racquet of smuggling in cheap bikes through the north. As is the case, the acts of a few meant tough new laws that affect the innocent. There had however been fabled reports of successful unguided crossings through a rural border somewhere up in the mountains. It was spoken that between 5pm and 7pm on a Sunday evening a shift change at customs meant you could sneak through undetected. Some who had gone before us noted issues when leaving the country, however that was a problem for another day and the general view seemed to be that since the government’s problem was with the import of illegal foreign bikes into Thailand then the Customs department were just happy to see the back of you when leaving (of course after paying the “official” exit fee).
Okay, so let’s chance it – we left Penang around midday on a Tuesday still aiming to be at the border for 5pm. Our hope was that the weekday working shift would run across the same timelines as the weekend. With any luck we would catch a tiring government official at the end of a long day waiting to clock out and head home for a Chang and green curry. Prolonged goodbyes with Mr Lim at Harley Davidson (mostly spent trying to explain why we were taking this obscure bush route rather than the perfectly paved superhighway to the traditional northern border crossing at Bukit Kayu Hitam) and a wrong turn just 30km’s shy of the Thai border meant that time (and daylight) were running scarce. We had long missed our 5pm deadline. We were more or less convinced of being rejected at the border, sent back with tail tucked firmly between legs. The contingencies started running wild and my brain felt like it was about to explode. Not just today – but in general. Where would the trip go to from here? I had already had so many problems and now I was faced with flying the bike to India, or taking a boat? Could I smuggle the bike in a truck across the border? Then there was Myanmar that also needed a guide. FUCK!
Anyway, back to the problem at hand. The first hurdle was going to be receiving our customs exit stamp from Malaysia. For those not up to speed an “administrative error” had created the need to affix “alternative” (i.e. “fake”) numbers to the engine case in Bali. Dave (not his real name) had made an incredible effort fabricating a plate that looked absolutely flawless however any Customs official with more than 3 days experience on the job would know that engine numbers should not be ‘removable’ and would likely question what might be hiding underneath the pop-rivetted plate. When asked to point out the engine number I explained they were “small and difficult to see – here, let me take a picture of it for you, otherwise you will dirty your trousers, and…” It worked. The photo sufficed. Without too much detailed inspection we had been stamped out of Malaysia and into a 600m stretch of no-man’s land that led up, over a hill to Thai customs and immigration. Thanking everybody profusely I carefully mounted the bike and pushed forward hoping not to draw too much attention to a farang on a loud, bright red cruiser…
Well, the panic was all for nothing – all I can say is praise the apathy of night shift! No one seemed to care about us at all. Not only was the bike allowed to pass into Thailand unaccompanied we were also granted extended visas which are not lawfully permitted at land borders. Welcome to the Wild West – our first taste of a lawless Thailand. The Customs officers didn’t care for where we had come from or where we were going however they were friendly enough, handed us a bottle of water and ushered us freely into their country. For months I had been planning and re-planning contingency strategies for a rejection at the Thai border – would I ship to Cambodia or fly the bike to Nepal? I had read pages and pages of travel blogs warning of cars being stopped at the border and turned around. To be honest I genuinely had not considered that I would make it into Thailand. I hadn’t thought of what to do next or researched any of the routes because this simply was not supposed to happen. With a sense of bemusement we meandered through the mountain pass and into the Thai border town of Betong. Absolutely surreal. This ethereal guiding light however would not last and as smoothly as today had come and gone, tomorrow would bring me grinding back to earth (literally) and I would wind up soaked head to toe sleeping on a concrete floor in a Thai prison. Friends had bets on when this would happen – even I didn’t think it would be as soon as day 2 in Thailand.
The morning started off fairly slowly – as mentioned, I didn’t really plan on actually making it across the border. I hadn’t checked exchange rates or anything like that so it was almost midday by the time we had acclimatised, bought Thai sim cards and sketched out a rough estimate for the next few days. After a little googling we found a fairly stern travel warning about this part of Southern Thailand, actually it was less of a warning and more of a moratorium – the Australian SmartTraveller government website notes the following:
“Do not travel to the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Songkhla or overland to and from the Malaysian border through these provinces. There are high levels of ongoing violence in these areas, including attacks and bombings that result in deaths and injuries on an almost daily basis.”
As luck would have it the border we crossed overland would be taking us straight through Yala, Pattani and Songkhla. Fuck. When I later met up with an old school friend in Bangkok I needed to help him left his jaw from the floor after explaining the route we took in the south. He couldn’t believe we made it alive. We must have passed through more than 20 or 30 military checkpoints – heavily armoured sandbag dugouts, razor wire and all the fruit however we were never greeted with anything other than glowing warmth and hospitality. The conflict is a typical borderlands one: an arbitrary line was drawn through the earth and printed in highschool geography text books. Some Malay-speaking Muslims fell foul of this line and now quite understandably question how it came to be that the King of Thailand and a royalist-military parliament that speaks a different language now rules over their day-to-day life. The fight is certainly not with tourists. A good thing, too because it came to be that shortly we would be needing a little hospitality.
So with the midday start we aimed low – only a 4 or 5 hour trip today, sleeping the night in Hat Yai. I’ve spoken before about my rule of not riding after 4pm – school lets out and kids are playing on the road, peak hour sets in and tired drivers hit the streets. It’s just not nice. In South East Asia during the wet season (which had hit slightly early) you shave an extra hour off your day and stop riding at 3pm. You can set your watch to the monsoonal rains. Bountiful sunshine until mid afternoon and then torrential carnage falls from the heavens as if from nowhere. We had heard that riding in the north of Thailand had become dreadful with the rain and that a lot of riders were heading south for an escape, surely we would be fine? Wrong.
The rain was gentle enough for the first hour – almost a pleasant mist as we carved through the southern Thai mountainside, lush green, untouched and beautiful. A welcome change from the oil palms of Malaysia and Borneo. THIS is Asia! The bike was singing for the first time in days, I had just crossed into a country I shouldn’t be in and everything was perfect. Enter an innocuous little sweeping left bend. We were coming downhill at a fairly modest speed – no more than 30 or 40kmph. In hindsight I feel like maybe I hit a little front brake, but I can’t really remember. The tyre ahead of me threw left and right on the slippery tarmac. I stayed off the levers, remembered my training and gained control again. I was delighted with my composure under pressure and that I didn’t jump straight on the brakes and turn some uncomfortable wobbles into a full-blown engagement with the pavement…which is exactly what happened. As soon as I had finished lavishing praise on myself for having complete and total control of the machine the front tyre gave out again. I couldn’t hold the bike up this time. We hit the bitumen and slid 20m – 30m along the ground, across the other lane and into the brush on the far side. To be fair it was low speed and not too bad. The bike had come away from me and I was laying on my side in the middle of the road waiting for an oncoming truck with failing brakes to come around the blind corner and caress me gently with its triple axles (how, oh how had there not been one coming as we spilled I will not know. Thanks be to Buddha, Allah, Jesus and any other number of imaginary friends helping out). My first thought was for Lisa. I could see she was still trapped under the bike and I had convinced myself that her leg was broken – if even attached at all. I have made a habit of noting hospitals, mechanics, tyre stores and petrol stations we pass in the event of emergencies. I had not seen a medical centre in days. We had barely passed a town since Betong. I ran over and picked up the bike, which was still running. Incredibly the panniers had kept the bike raised off her leg and she was untouched. I had taken off the smallest amount of bark from my elbow, and the most serious injury came from a piece of sword grass that tore straight through my hands as I tried to uproot it and place it on the road as a sort of ‘safety cone’. Using vegetation as a warning to oncoming traffic seemed to be the standard procedure across Asia for truck breakdowns and road-side tyre changes.
The first car to pass us stopped to check in. So too did the second. Wonderful people. In one of the cars were two policemen. At this time I thought everything was okay. The bike was still running and Lisa was uninjured. Hopefully I could nod, smile and politely wave them away before they discovered we were travelling through Thailand unguided and illegally. Having gathered a few errant items off the road we composed ourselves and set to take off. In the tumble the forward controls to change the gears had completely snapped off at the bracket. No amount of duct tape was going to hold them together and I didn’t see us making it through the mountains in only one gear. Simultaneously with coming to this observation the skies opened up. I have never felt the rain so hard. It fell with such weight that it was almost painful. Without saying a word one of the men had donned his flippers and snorkel, throwing himself to the mud to fiddle with the controls. The rest of us tried in vein to hold a tarpaulin above him but it was pointless. Eventually he decided, as had I, that a roadside repair would be a fruitless exercise and the bike was loaded into the back of their truck. We had only limited tie-downs and so with driver and Lisa in the front, my new friend and I stood in the back of the tray holding the bike upright as Zeus let us have his all. It is probably a good time now to point out that there had not been a word of English spoken to this point. Not a word. We had gathered that the gentlemen were police only because one of them was wearing a gym singlet that said ‘police’ and both of them were carrying six-shooter revolvers on their hips in leather holsters. But then again, that was not particularly unusual for people in this area of Thailand.
We stood in the back of the tray for an hour before stopping in a compound. Still no English, however there were bananas, water, tea and iodine brought out for our cuts and scratches. Only by this time did I realise that we were guests rather suspects or criminals. Another hour later the cavalry arrived. A man immaculately dressed in white parade uniform with red sash and an automatic pistol on hip (surely reserved for the higher ranks) was escorted by three men carrying fully loaded M16’s and bullet proof vests. One of them spoke some English, very little, but it was more than anyone else and certainly more than the amount of Thai I had mastered in 24 hours. Interestingly as a side note here, I had collected a humble, yet altogether reasonable number of phrases in Indonesian/Malaysian by this time. I could almost have a full conversation and certainly knew the key words for mechanic, metalworking and repairs. The border was such a hard line on culture that no one spoke a word of Malay. Not a single word. How bizarre! Especially considering that was the tongue of the enemy for whom they were so heavily armed against. Anyway, I digress.
The police wanted to take us back to the town we had left that morning. Fair enough, however they did not seem confident that we would find anyone to fabricate a new bracket. I tried to explain that I could do it myself with a grinder and a decent drill. We managed to explain that we were headed north to Hat Yai and that we would prefer not to back track anymore than we already had. If we were going to chance repairs in one town or another it would be best to push forward. I tried to offer payment to take us however that was flatly refused. No, instead our immaculately dressed man in white would be our saviour for “he know motorbike”. Indeed he did.
The bike went back on the truck. Still not knowing what was happening we set off. This time a much shorter trip, just around the corner…to the police station, where we would spend the night. The Man in White (yes, this was both his name and identity now and proper noun should be capitalised) disappeared for some time and came back, once again immaculately dressed, however this time black slacks and white t-shirt, tucked into the belt. He had a tool bag and immediately set to the repairs.
He kept repeating the only word he seemed to know in English “modification”. I tried to convince him that all we needed was to take the broken bracket, cut a new one and drill out the mounting points. A fairly simple job but it would certainly require power tools. They have assault rifles; surely they have a drill press? Whether they did or did not have the tools to do it my way, I learnt more about the world, people, ingenuity, mechanics and logical and rational thought in one hour watching the Man in White than I had learnt in 29 years. If there’s more than one way to skin a cat, this man proved it to me. It was a wonderful lesson in how the third world operates with what they have on hand. He took 2 pieces of scrap aluminium he found in the back yard and fashioned an entirely new system to change the gears on the bike. He didn’t try and fix the broken item, he figured out a new way to do the same job. It may not seem like much reading this however it goes contrary to the whole way we are taught to work as westerners – we replace like for like. Not just in terms of mechanics, but in all areas of life. If something is broken, we remove and replace the broken piece, or we robotically replicate it to be exactly the same. The system this guy rigged up in an hour under a rusted out tin roof in monsoonal rains with a couple of rusty hand tools and some scrap worked almost better than store-bought. The gears changed smooth and the only implication was a slightly more uncomfortable foot position. I was going to ride right through to Scotland with not much for than a Coke can for a gear stick!
It was now dark. The Man in White, while refusing to accept payment for his services, was going to personally escort us to Hat Yai (a good 3 hours), make sure we were settled, safe and comfortable at a hotel before promptly turning around to be back on duty the next morning. Australians pride themselves on lending a hand, but this took helping thy neighbour to a whole new level. I was still a little shaken and didn’t quite know how I’d fallen, nor was I completely convinced by this new ‘modification’. The roads were flooded and the spotlight on the bike had rattled loose so we decided we would stay the night and leave early the next day. If there were any problems we would have a full day to sort them. Where then to sleep? There being no hotels in town we were able to rent a prison cell. Yes, we paid a nominal fee to a lovely older couple to borrow a mattress to lay on the concrete floor of a barred cell. Granted it must have been the presidential suite because it was quite roomy, had a fan (that didn’t work) and ‘washing’ facilities; a bricked up reservoir filled with water that had formed an algal growth and a hole in the ground screaming ‘tetanus’, ‘tinea’ and a host of other dirty Thai words.
As a thank you we asked to buy the boys dinner. They accepted and we went out for what was maybe the single best meal of the entire trip to date. As to be expected with the hard cultural and linguistic border, so too had the food immediately changed. After two months of nasi campur and fried foods the fresh, green, herbal, sweet and sour Thai cuisine was – maybe slightly more so than the rain – heaven sent. My tastebuds exploded in a fiesta of Thai basil, birds eye chilli, fish sauce, fresh water crab and green, raw papaya. We had mai larp which is a dry minced chicken dish that is cooked with a variety of different chillis. The mai larp at David Thompson’s Long Chim’s was, until that day, the spiciest food I had ever eaten. This roadside truck stop in Betong bested that. The stand out dish for me was ‘som tum’ which is simply a salad. It is sweet, sour and salty made of julienne papaya and crushed tomato. This was topped with what seemed to be raw fresh water crabs. It was exceptional. The boys laughed as a I doted over “this sauce. This sauce. What is this sauce!?!”. Nam jim. It was nam jim. I have had nam jim a thousand times, however never like this. We ate like kings that night and there were a couple of other dishes like the pork and basil that blew me away as well. Ultimately it would come to be that almost every restaurant in Thailand offers these dishes and they taste almost identical to the one in that dimly lit timber shack. The novelty soon wore off, however for that one night, and maybe because of the cold, wet and miserable circumstances, it was the greatest meal I had ever eaten. The guys were also teetotallers so it didn’t cost me too much, either!
We were escorted back home by one guy who rode one handed so that he could hold his pink umbrella above him in the other. A site which I only now re-picture in my mind’s eye and laugh hysterically. The rain was so heavy it was akin to throwing a bucket of water at the sun. The next morning we woke to the birds singing and gorged on fresh rambutans that we picked off the trees at our ‘hotel’. The old lady we borrowed the mattress from brought us some small parcels of rice steamed in banana leaf with either sweet or savoury filling and we mounted the steed, post ‘modification’ bound for Hat Yai. We blasted through Hat Yai and made it to Krabbi where we once again landed upon immeasurable and unmotivated hospitality.
Not convinced by the new contraption the landlord of our home-stay took me to his friend where we fixed the bike the ‘western way’- replacing like for like. We also bolstered the sissybar with some extra supports as one of the sides had cracked through and all our luggage was hanging on by a precarious thread. One gesture that I will always remember is where, while Lisa and I were out for dinner, this man had made a size 13 spanner for me to take. Mine had rounded out and wasn’t quite doing the job. So he took a piece of stainless, measured it up and ground out a new tool.
The rest of Thailand was more or less ‘conventional’ but don’t let that suggest that it was anything less than wondrous. We spent about 2 weeks floating from island to island, swimming, tanning, eating and drinking and living in beach bungalows from Phi Phi to Koh Tao. At one stage I was electrocuted by some bare wires. It was by a pool and should I have been wet then the whole matter could have been a different story. Along the Malay Peninsula I noticed the bike eating through an unprecedented amount of oil. Time on the visa was running short, as too was the deadline to make Mae Sot to cross Myanmar with the group so we made a decision to take a train through the Kra Isthmus up to to Bangkok.
Well, that was a damn experience in itself. Silly me. Why would I imagine that the bike would travel on the same train as us? Why would I imagine that I would alight and find it waiting for me? Why, by now, would I imagine that anything would be easy, or as expected in south east asia? Expect the unexpected. After arriving in Bangkok we searched the station for 3 hours, being escorted (albeit with good intentions) from platform to platform. No one could tell us where the bike was. Finally someone told us the train was running late and would be here ‘sometime’ in the next few hours. Rubbish, I thought to myself. The bike, our luggage and the entire trip had been souvenir-ed by the lucky new Thai owner of a red Hunter Motorcycle. I felt like a fool and had even tipped the baggage boys at the station to ensure everything was well handled. How stupid could I have been? Why not just wait and watch the bike be loaded? Why not fix the oil leak and ride it? I had been punished for taking a short cut.
Oh, yee of little faith. Sure enough, the train arrived and out rolled Ernesto only some 5 hours later. It was accompanied by 2 BMW GS800’s ridden by local guys who were out for a little tour around the north of their country. I took some tips and we shared some stories however could not travel together as it had become apparent that I could not bribe my way to an Indian visa in Thailand. It would have to be a border run to Cambodia. I will never do a land-border crossing in Asia without my motorbike ever again. Ever. The phrase “shit storm” does not even begin to explain the bureaucratic process, but a letter on Cambodia (fascinating country) is for another day.
Bangkok was an experience and I would certainly return in an instant. We watched a little Muai Thai, ate at Asia’s number one restaurant, Gaggan, which was positively terrible. Taking the $800 price tag into consideration it was probably the worst meal I’ve ever had. This Indian restaurant in Bangkok served sushi, sashimi, uni and a dashi stock meringue falling into the trap of more ‘confusion’ than ‘fusion’. Numerous elements were repeated on multiple dishes and the overall impression was one of malaise and disinterest. The name and brand fills the restaurant every night. There is a 2 month wait-list we were lucky to skip. After speaking to some food critics at a Bangkok Food Week event I was invited to everyone seems quite glad that Gaggan will be closing down in order to start up a new venture in Japan. One critic said that it’s consistently high rating was an offence to every other fine dining restaurant in Asia. After the meal all I wanted was some street food – moo yang (barbecued pork patties) with a dessert of sticky rice and mango!
After those few days in Bangkok it was time to say goodbye to Lisa. This was tough. She had been my rock through the whole journey. I would not have made it across Indonesia or Malaysia without Lisa. The ride probably would never have happened – she kept me grounded through all the bad luck. As I watched my best friend of the past 3 months walk away I had never felt so alone. Tearfully I boarded the train back into town. We had grown incredibly close over the months. How could you not – spending every waking minute together, bound by a motorbike. She had meant quite literally everything to me and to the trip.
On the way out of Bangkok towards Kanchanaburri and the bridge over the River Kwai the heavens opened up on me again. As if oblivious that I might have been the most lowly man in Bangkok at this time, the monsoons let me have their all once more. Utterly drenched once again from head to toe I pulled into a little hostel, bought a sticky rice and mango, took all my worldly possession out, hung them on the stair well to dry and fell asleep.
As if the weather hadn’t dampened my mood I must have dropped my fuel cap keys on the side of the road the day before. I was carrying a tarp with me and jumped off halfway in the rain to baton down the hatches, trying to further waterproof my camera gear. A few youtube videos showed how a hammer and a decent flat head screwdriver might crack the lock, however – wouldn’t you know it, 2 blocks down the road was a lock smith. $2 and 20 minutes later everything was good as new.
After learning of the bloodthirsty WWII Japanese railway projects and patching up a bloodied knee for a new friend’s Thailand tattoo (i.e. scooter accident) it was head-down for the Myanmar border. Thankfully the only bike troubles I had that day was losing my clutch lever at a busy intersection…
In the beating sun I crossed some breathtaking scenery to the Thai border town of Mae Sot, meeting up with the 2 Landcruisers and fellow motorbike rider with whom I would be crossing into Myanmar the following day. We drank the hotel out of beers and finished off the Thai rum as well as a bottle of fine brandy I had scored in Cambodia. We had all been on the road for some time now and, apparently, been searching for a familiar face, language and a little collegiality – a taste of home. In searching for some farewell words one of my favourite songs has just come on, and I feel it befitting of the bittersweet mood of that night. Thank you, Shawn Mullins who says: “I have always known, since I was a child that the road is my home and my spirit is wild, I have my memories, and I have lots of time, now I’m stoned in (Mae Sot) with you on my mind”. Kob kuhn krab, Thailand.