16 November 2016

Thailand Part 7—Trains, Tuk-tuks, and Take-aways

After about 10 days in Chiang Mai and surrounding areas, it was time to head home. Rather than fly the 700 kms (420 miles) back to Bangkok, I decided to take the train to back to Bangkok, where I would catch flights to Saigon and then to Da Lat.

In my research I found a very helpful site called Seat61. The site highly recommends purchasing tickets ahead of time via a 12Go, so I did. The total fare, with service fee, was 891 bhat (US$27); about $20 less than I paid for my Nok Air flight to Chiang Mai. The trip is scheduled as 11 hours and actually took just about that. It was a nice experience, though now that I've done it, if I return to Chiang Mai, I'll pay the extra to fly both ways. Nok Air was a good choice because the ticket included up to 15kg (33 lbs) of baggage allowance. I wore/carried my heavy armored motorcycle jacket and boots to avoid paying excess baggage fees.

When you are flying within Asia, ALWAYS check the baggage allowance BEFORE you pay for your ticket. Vietnam Airlines and other "higher-end" carriers give you 20-30 kg (44-66 lbs) per flight, while the "budget" airlines like Air Asia and Viet Jet ALWAYS charge extra for checked bags and sometimes even charge for carry-ons, sometimes raising the total price to equal or exceed that of the better airlines. They do offer a discount if you pay the baggage fees when you make your reservation, though you want to print out and double-check your receipt to verify that the web site processed your request and payment. We discovered this the hard way the one (and only) time we flew Viet Jet. They tried to charge us twice as much for baggage at the airport because the web site hadn't properly processed our payment and I didn't double-check. My suggestion is that unless the el-cheapo airline is the only one available for the route you want to fly, avoid them spend a little more up-front for better service, friendlier employees, included baggage, and more legroom. The low-cost Asian airlines cater to locals and they are, 95% of the time, less in need of leg room than we Westerners. I've flown on planes within Asia where I had to sit at an angle just to fit into the available legroom.

Back to the train...

After tea at the Chiang Mai station,

The entrance to the boarding platform
Even the "Sprinter" takes 10.5 hours to travel 700 kilometers (420 miles)
It's been a while since I've seen a condom machine in the men's room,
though since half the trains are all-nighters, it's probably a good idea.
With all the wonderful teas in Asia, it's surprising how many times "Lipton" is the only choice.
we passengers boarded and took our assigned seats on the "Sprinter".

My seat came with a cloudy and scratched window, so I sat on the other side (of the aisle, not the window) for most of the trip until a Thai woman boarded who'd been assigned the seat.

For the first five hours of the trip, the entire car was filled with the voices of two men who talked very loudly and almost incessantly. After a while, it faded into "white noise" or background music and I found myself wondering, "Why am I unable to process loud Vietnamese conversations the same way?" Maybe it's the frequency? Most Vietnamese speech I hear seems that it is conducted at higher audio frequencies than most Thai conversations.

Whining children sound the same in any language... why can't parents keep them more quiet, especially in a confined space like a railroad passenger car?

I spent most of the trip looking out the window, taking a few photos and videos

These squatting toilets are challenging enough without the train's added motion...
of the mostly unremarkable countryside,

and eating the rather surprisingly good packaged meals that were included in the ticket price.

Satay Fried Mackeral—I could've eaten more
The snack was Pineapple Puffs (a bit dry)
Upon arrival in Bangkok, I to a tuk-tuk to the iSanook Residence hotel I'd found on Expedia. Nice enough place with clean, quiet rooms, BUT... DO NOT EAT dinner in the top-floor restaurant! It sucked!!!

The hotel is down a couple small streets/alleys from the main street, so it's nice and quiet. There are a number of family-owned restaurants in the area, but to get anywhere else, you're going to need a tuk-tuk or hike to the rail station (about 10 blocks).

I checked in about 8 p.m. and, VERY HUNGRY, asked about food. The only viable alternative (the family-owned places were all closed) was the top-floor restaurant in the hotel. I sat down, was given a menu, made my selection, and then ordered "yellow curry with shrimp, squid, egg, and vegetables (Seafood Pad Pong Ka-Ree)". What a HUGE disappointment! Fully 1/3 of the dish was barely sautéed (i.e. raw) onions and the "seafood" consisted of exactly two shrimp and two fragments of squid.

When I brought this to the attention of the surly waitress, she mumbled something in Thai and wandered off. The manager I requested never appeared, so I took up my disappointment (and photos) with the hotel manager. She said she'd have someone get back with me in the morning. The short version is that they charged me for the crappy food and gave me store credit in the deli--which was never open when I was hungry.

Would I stay here again? NO! The location is less-than-ideal and... the food sucks.

Since I had a day in Bangkok and needed some parts for my 400cc Suzuki DRZ, I took the list of "big bike" shops that I got from the concierge at the Renaissance during our stay before I went to Chiang Mai and spent the day wandering the city in a taxi seeking out these shops. Unfortunately, Suzuki doesn't sell DRZ in Thailand, so not even the Suzuki dealer had any parts and the other shops either don't want to or (most likely) can't get them.

One of the "performance" shops I tried did have a number of very interesting displays that, in my Western mind, were more suitable for a anime/fetish shop than a motorcycle accessory shop...

Whatever trips your trigger, as my friend Rich D probably still says...

My final morning in Bangkok I headed to the airport early so as to ensure that I had plenty of time. I learned a long time ago that it's much better to sit for an extra hour after going through Security Theater and passport control than to rush, run, sweat, and stress when some little thing goes sideways and throws of your imagined schedule.

The Skyway train connects to a dedicated Airport Rail Link train that drops you right at the terminal, so I chose to again take a taxi only to the Skyway station. I forgot about the many stairs and the scarcity of elevators (at least that I was able to find)... SHIT!

Only one of the many sets of stairs that I got to drag my three heavy bags up or down
THIS queue at Passport Control is one of the reasons it's best to leave plenty of time to get to your flight
In spite of the obstacles, I made it to the departure gate with time to spare, passing these two interesting views on my way

As I waited for my Vietnam Airlines flight back to Saigon, I thought about my impressions and take-aways from Thailand...

1) Bangkok is nice, though significantly more enjoyable with ViLa by my side than alone.

2) Chiang Mai is a great little town that would probably be where I'd head if I ever decide to live in Thailand.

3) The CB500X was a good bike that I rented for a fair price. While it handled well, it's more of a "sport bike" than I want, so there's no danger I'll be tempted to buy one. The new Africa Twin is more to my liking; maybe next time I go they'll have them on-offer.

4) I need to return to ride MORE of the wonderful roads of northern Thailand... preferably avoiding the clay-covered ones.

My impressions of Thailand as it compares to Vietnam:
- A much more polite (to my Western mind) society
- They don't ride along the curb on wrong side of the road
- They have better helmets, though that doesn't help if it's in the basket instead of worn properly
- A LOT more bitter, disgruntled expats wasting their life in the bars
- The roads are better—the worst road I rode was better than 80% of VN roads outside of cities, EXCEPT when they water down clay on top of tarmac
- There are many more wats than temples
- There are seemingly more "Hello Girl" bars and massage parlors in Chiang Mai than in much larger Saigon
- A LOT more ladyboys
- Thailand had the first signs I ever saw that say getting a tattoo of Buddha or having him as decoration is disrespectful and asking people not to do it. If I had been considering it (I hadn't), this new knowledge would change that.

One last comparison—there's no one in jail in Vietnam for writing an article making fun of the King's dog...

09 November 2016

Thailand, Part 5 — Riding the Strawberry Loop

Mae Sa Valley, Samoeng Loop, January 2016
Click here for today's route.

After another wonderful breakfast at

it was time to get on the road.

Thailand is a kingdom ruled by a junta. To cement the Authoritarian Father rule, their king is actually referred to as "Dad".

The bike was still pretty DIRTY from my two offs, so on the way to the Samoeng Loop, I stopped and got it washed. They took their time, did a great job, and charged hardly anything...

The bike/car wash place also had some of the more interesting icons to denote the men's and women's restrooms...

Once you get off the highway, road 1096 to Samoeng is very curvy and takes you past a number of places where you can have an "elephant encounter". Fortunately, the majority of them are non-riding encounters—riding an elephant is very harmful to the beautiful creatures and continues the abuse that they've suffered their entire lives. Here is one of the many articles you can find that goes into more detail: "Why elephant riding should be removed from your Bucket List".

Next time through, I will definitely stop at one of the elephant places; this time I just rode past and into the beautiful scenery.

At the junction of 1096 and 1269 (see map here), you can either go to right on 1269 to Samoeng on a spur or left on 1269 and loop back to Chiang Mai. Since I had all day, I took a right. I found that there is little to see in Somoeng, so I turned around and headed back to the 1096 interchange. I wanted to stop at one of the strawberry farms I'd passed on my way in...

Choosing one at random—though as my good friend Gee says, "everything happens for a reason"—I met Thaweesup Kriwattanakig, a gregarious young man with great English skills. He was also the one who made sure my strawberries were FRESH!

They literally went out into the field and picked them just for me!

while I waited, I made friends with the resident feline

and had a couple cups of tea and some complimentary strawberries. I originally asked for one kilo (2.2 lbs), though after tucking into the samples,

I quickly upped that to two kilos!

It's hard to believe that until that day, when I asked why so many of the strawberries had a lot of white on them, I did not know that the white strawberries will turn red next day or so. I was then able to enjoy fresh-picked-just-for-me strawberries for the next three days. When you are in Thailand, be sure to stop by to meet Thaweesup and his co-workers and enjoy their strawberries...

Having temporarily eaten my fill of strawberries and all but filled my top box with freshly-picked strawberries, I said goodbye to Thaweesup and his coworkers and headed back toward Chiang Mai. As I started up a hill, I rounded a corner to see two scooters off the road, one of which was on its side. As most conscientious motorcyclists will, I pulled over to see if all was okay... and I met two very nice young women, one of whom had a pretty good case of road rash from braking too suddenly in the gravel she'd drifted into on the side of the road. Her friend and I helped her to sit on the guardrail while I picked up her scooter and checked it for damage. The right-hand side mirror was toast and one of the side panels was scratched up, though the bike was still ride-able.

Checking in again with Kelly (the injured one) and her friend, Nimisha, I found that they weren't carrying any water with which they could wash the gravel out of the seemingly superficial wounds. I schlepped over to my bike, grabbed a 2L bottle of water and one of the 1/2 kilo boxes of strawberries. I offered the strawberries as a distraction from the discomfort of washing the gravel out of and cleaning the wounds in her knee and arm and was a bit surprised when they each only ate a couple. I then offered them the entire box while telling them briefly of the wonderful strawberry farm I'd just left. They kindly thanked me and said that they'd stop there and buy some themselves.

Kelly, Thaweesup, and Nimisha in the field
After a bit more conversation, we said our goodbyes and rode off in opposite directions—they to meet Thaweesup, and I toward Chiang Mai.

Earlier I'd given my last business card to Thaweesup and he'd promised to "Friend" me on Facebook, so I was happy to see that, a few days later he posted about both my visit and theirs. Kelly got my information from the business card, also sent me a "Friend" request, and posted this.

It was good to have two new friends and to see that Kelly was recovering well, though she did tell me that she and Nimisha wished they'd taken me up on my offer of a kilo of strawberries to ease her pain. It turns out that I'd bought out the last of the farm's inventory for the day and they had to go without. Sorry. If it helps any, they were awesome! :-D

I worked up an appetite ridin' 'round the hills of 1269, so I picked a place for lunch that had a few other motorcycles parked out front. The food was good and the view even better.

As I waited for my food, a young man approached me, asked what I was riding and where I was from. We talked for a bit and he told me he that he's a tour guide (and, I think, part owner) of an outfit called Big Bike Tours. He suggested I look at their web site and consider joining one of their tours. I promised to check out the web site and told him that I'm not much of a "tour person", more of a loner. After checking their web site, though, I may consider joining a tour to Myanmar because that's pretty much the only way a motorcyclist can get in.

He was a nice young man with good English skills. I wish him and his company well.

The rest of the ride back to the hotel in Chiang Mai was uneventful, though I did stop and watch them painting the road red...

And photograph more of the tighter non-red curves.

The last thing I did before returning the CBX500 was to go to the train station to buy my ticket to back to Bangkok.

Great ride with just enough adventure and diversity to keep it exciting... and the rubber on the road.

Next: Wrapping up Thailand—Trains, Tuk-tuks, and Take-aways