Pai is not a big town, maybe four or five streets, a market, and lots of chilled-out-vibe bars and cafes for backpackers, tourists and motorbike adventurers. But it also has a very efficient hospital. Within an hour I was assessed in triage, filled in a visiting patient record, had blood pressure and weight taken, sent to a Doctor, diagnosed and prescribed. Having had a violent histamine reaction once as a child I knew what was coming; I was taken to a treatment ward and told to lie down in preparation for a huge hydrocortisone injection. The last time this happened I was about 10 and according to my mother I turned grey and looked like I was about to give up the fight for life. This time I just lay back and in the hospital bed and passed out for a couple of hours. The last thing I remember was talking to the French girl in the bed next to me who had crashed her rental scooter wearing only shorts and tee-shirt, her extensive flesh wounds from hitting the tarmac had got infected and she was screaming as the nurses were digging yellow infected tissue out of her leg and arm. There’s a salutary tale there somewhere but we tend to use all the gear all the time so she was a bit confused and surprised to hear that I had no physical injuries from my various motorbiking mishaps. I didn’t rub in the lack of appropriate protection, she was in enough pain, and then a nurse gave me a hydrocortisone injection and everything disappeared. I woke to find not my mum’s concerned face but Lawrence peering round the side of the treatment room to see if I was still alive. I had no idea I’d been out for so long and he’d come back to see what was happening, it’s a bit strange to talk about people who you’re still with but I know Lawrence won’t mind me saying that he is a truly great friend. He took me back to the hotel and spent the next 2 days bringing food and water and checking in just to see how I was getting on. The strong antihistamine and hydrocortisone pills that the Doctor gave me knocked me out. I slept for most of the next 48 hours, waking only to take drugs, food and have a brief chat with Lawrence. But within 3 days my face returned to normal proportions, my eyes opened, my nose stopped running the itchiness passed and I was ready to ride again. Oh and the cost of all that medical expertise, drugs and hospital treatment? £7 !
So not satisfied with putting ourselves at great risk on off-road trails, Lawrence and I decided to go off in into the forests again in search of a Huey helicopter which crashed somewhere up near in the Golden triangle borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Big-Dog Steve had given me the GPS location and external sources had a verified that the trail was a nice big wide track through some pine forests and really wouldn’t present a problem … they were right, it was occasionally a bit tricky, but nothing to cause any mishaps and we reached the remote chopper stranded high in the mountains with time to take a load of enigmatic photos of a Huey on an Asian mountain with the big blood-orange sun casting Apocalypse Now style silhouettes. We messed around doing our best Arnie impressions of “Ged to zee choppa” and listened to Barber’s Adagio for Strings (used in the soundtrack for Platoon), cooked noodles for dinner and I slung my hammock inside the Huey and spent the night in the style of a ‘Nam vet from an Oliver Stone movie, cue more silly quotes … (engage bad west-coast US accent) “ya never fought that war, ya weren’t even there, man” etc!
On our return to Chiang Mai OCD and I checked back into the best hostel I’ve ever known; if you ever go to Chiang Mai, go to the Plearn Hostel on Tha Phae Lane 1, it’s the cleanest, most helpful, most comfortable hostel I’ve ever stayed in with free bicycles and breakfast. It’s run by a friendly girl called Nu and her family for whom nothing is too much trouble. I was leaving at 5:30am to meet Big-Dog Steve to leave early for his Lao trip, Nu got up to help me check out but I was worried for Lawrence who was now feeling the effects of too much time in the forests and had picked up a fever. I felt terrible about leaving him to be ill on his own, especially as he had looked after me a few days previously but it turns out I had nothing to worry about. Nu took Lawrence to hospital in Chiang Mai and nursed him back to health at the Plearn hostel for the next few days. She’s great. I think Lawrence wants to play scrabble with her (that’s both a factual and euphemistic concept). So I met up with Steve and his mate Ady. Ady grew up scrambling trials bikes around the Australian outback and crashing into his dad’s cows so he’s got some off-road credentials although he’s borrowed a V-Strom for this trip which is a bit more road-biased. We set off for the new Thailand / Laos border which, to our annoyance had closed for lunch at only 11:50am. Eventually the border control officer wandered over with a polystyrene tray of pad Thai, looked with confusion at our British and Aussie passports and announced that this particular border crossing only offers visa on arrival entry to the bloody Swiss. I can imagine a wry, slightly condescending smile creeping across the faces of OCD, Big Phil and Critical Dave! The hapless British and Aussie passport holders had to nail it another 200km to Tha Li although that meant taking in some stunning mountains passes in North East Thailand so we weren’t that annoyed, just four hours late. Rolling into a fairly remote border crossing in Laos on a late Sunday afternoon poses some logistical problems, not least the lack of currency-changing kiosks (none), the lack of food (also none) and the lack of petrol stations, although we found one which, to our relief, took Thai Bahts. The next day proved to be the sort of day that most overland bikers pray they don’t have and laugh when they hear that it’s happened to someone else …
It started badly for me, the beginning of Big-Dog Steve’s intended off-road trail was blocked which forced us to cross a river. A river-crossing that turned out to be unnecessary from a routing point of view, which makes the following fuck-up even more galling. The river was about 20m wide and looked no more than 50cm deep although it was moving quite fast and the river bed was rocky and unpredictable. I broke my own river-crossing rule by riding into it without walking across first to check the depth, route, hidden nastiness etc. This proved to be a poor decision; half way across the front wheel hit a big immersed rock which, Titanic-style, lifted the front of the bike clean out of the water, flipped me sideways and landed me on my side in the middle of the river. The engine kept running but the right pannier box got flooded and I got soaked and really quite pissed off. The bike made it over to the other side where I told Big-Dog and Outback Ady to follow their off-road trail without me, I needed a couple of hours to dry myself and my flooded gear. I’ll take the road route to the next waypoint. I spent an unusual morning on the river bank, unpacking my tools, spares, maps and accessories from the flooded pannier box and spreading them across the stony bank to dry in the hot Laotian sun. I became an unusual local attraction as word quickly spread across the village that some strange big European guy on a big European bike had spread maps of the whole of Asia across their river bank and was doing an impression of an Indian laundry; hanging his boots, gloves and clothes in the trees. A bunch of boys in fancy-dress anti-ghost costumes (there’s a festival going on not dissimilar to our Hallowe’en at the moment) turned up to bang drums and gongs and wave the weird and wonderful masks around. All very good-humoured and funny! Serendipity works in strange ways, so there I was, sorting out all my stuff and cleaning and drying my gear while Big-Dog and Outback were dealing with a trail which even they, as experienced off-road riders, admitted was on the cusp of too much for their big bikes. Both of them ditched their bikes in the dirt that morning so in some respects I was glad to have spent it drying myself on the side of a river bank to the amusement of the locals. We reconvened in the afternoon and headed on towards Hongsa through some remote mountain villages on dirt tracks and gravel trails, all of which were fine, but slow going, until Big-Dog Steve slid into a couple of problems. He was rounding a blind bend on a gravel track and cutting the corner, the two problems arrived in the form of a couple of kids on a scooter doing the same thing in the opposite direction. I came along to find a pile of people and bikes; from top to bottom there was Steve’s big BMW which was squashing Steve, who was squashing a scooter which had trapped its two pre-teen pilots against the side of the mountain, none of them could move, if it wasn’t a bit unnerving for the crushed kids it would have been hilarious! Fortunately, the kids were pulled out with only a couple of cuts and bruises and their scooter suffered some scratches so Steve gave them some cash towards the repairs. We trundled on thinking little more about it, until we reached the next village. Here a posse had been put together to block our path and demand we go with them to deal further with the kid-crushing crash. It had all the signs of turning a little bit difficult as Steve and Ady negotiated with the villagers while I guarded the bikes and photographed the chickens and children who were surrounding me. After several hours and quite a lot more cash from Big-Dog’s wallet we were allowed to proceed, but by this time the sun was setting and we were still 36km of dirt tracks and trails from Hongsa with no option for alternative accommodation. There was nothing for it than to push on by headlight in the dust and dirt. How I didn’t stack the bike during two hours of rutted paths and holes hidden in the dark I don’t know but we reached Hongsa with my nerves somewhat shredded and Steve in danger of having his moniker changed to Kiddie-Crusher. My river-crossing incident that morning seemed like child’s play compared to the drama of rest of the day.