Initially Western Thailand was a bit under-inspiring compared to the colourful, haphazard but delightful simplicity of Burma. It was a culture shock to see globalisation in full swing as soon as we crossed the border at Mae Sot. Tesco, Starbucks, Makro, and of course the golden M have all invaded and made the place look like a homogenous conglomerate battleground. We could have been anywhere from Tokyo to Texas with few identifying features. But it was actually a pleasure to have road signs, traffic signals, lane discipline and sensible road layout for the first time since leaving London, which implies that London has all of those things, so for anyone who’s circumnavigated the North Circular it gives you an idea how bad things have got if that is deemed to be good practice! It is desperately hot and humid, hitting 44°C, so even when the bike is moving the hot air offers no cooling, it just serves to bathe my sweaty skin in more heat whilst my plums are being stewed by the engine which feels like it’s going to melt through the seat. Strangely it’s better to keep all the riding gear on, including the Gore-tex boots which at least offer some insulation from the blast furnace that they’re wrapped around.
In Chiang Mai we planned to do some basic service and maintenance on the bikes; Laura (Brett’s girlfriend) arrived from London weighed down like a pack horse with spares and accessories for us, including two new tyres for Brett and a new Sat-nav system for me. Happy days, I no longer have to cook the CPU in my mobile phone whose GPS app has done remarkably well but it’s time to get a Garmin which is actually designed for the stresses of motorbike travel in this crazy heat, I hadn’t got one before because no-one knew how to load S E Asian maps onto a European Garmin, but Aussie Brett knows – he’s very good at techie stuff. Meanwhile I was considering the concepts of chaos theory, where one small event can have a remarkable effect on the future. Back in Meghalaya in North Eastern India, on a very quiet road near the living root bridges we bumped into a young sexy Dutch guy called Pieter whose overland motorbike journey was heading in the opposite direction to us; he had bought a BMW in Chiang Mai with the help of a British guy called Steve (an ex-pat living in Thailand) and was riding it across Asia and back to Holland. So sexy Pieter suggested getting in contact with British Steve for some help and advice about bikes in Chiang Mai. The chances of finding a sexy Pieter on a BMW in Meghalaya are about as rare as coming across an Aussie on a KTM in a traffic jam near Pune on the way to Goa, but Brett and I managed that one too and have been together on and off for the last 3 months. And without Aussie Brett I wouldn’t know many things about maintaining bikes, nor how to set up a Garmin to use Open Street Maps in Asia and I wouldn’t know Laura, his girlfriend, who can bring me one out to Chiang Mai from London. Sorry I’m digressing, so British Steve, who I found through sexy Pieter, who I found at the top of a hill in Meghalaya is a legendary lovely man. If you were to view books by their covers Steve would be a big British Bulldog. He’s a big, stocky guy with arms like tree-trunks, shaved head, star-shaped tattoos on each elbow and a big, can-do approach to things. You can understand why the boyfriend of his 17-year-old daughter is shit-scared of him, although as with most big dogs he’s got a heart of gold and is unbelievably helpful. Steve managed to source a new rear tyre for me (the exact same brand and type that I’m currently using), then he paid for it, organised it to be delivered to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, then he hopped on his scooter and drove it down to the Piston Shop bike workshop which we had commandeered so I could have it fitted. And by this stage we’d only met once for a Coke. Big-Dog Steve also invited me to join his motorbike tour of Laos that he was planning with another biker from Chiang Mai. I gratefully accepted, it sounded like a fantastic trip he’d planned taking in some dirt roads, mountain roads, sights and scenery of rural Laos where the Americans had waged a secret bombing campaign for 9 years during the Vietnam war. Steve loaded up all his trails and points of interest onto my new Garmin, including some amazing “local-knowledge-only” trails around Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand, this sort of information and assistance is priceless, real life local expertise beats any guide book and web forum.
OCD Lawence and I had a week to kill before Big-Dog Steve’s tour to Laos left Chiang Mai so we decided to follow some of Steve’s off-road trails into the mountains North of Chiang Mai towards Pai and a helicopter crash site up near the Burma / China border, and so starts salutary tale No 6. Don’t over-estimate your ability, or under-estimate the time it’s going to take, or go into the jungle without some sustenance; things can go wrong very quickly …
I’ve only done one off-road bike training course in Wales in nice, safe controlled conditions on a bike with no luggage weighing half of the 300kg that my fully laden 1190 is saddled with, and Lawrence has accrued some personal experience of gravel / dirt tracks in Turkey and Iran but neither of us have come across this sort of thing before. We were assured it was an easy wide trail through the forests for about 60km to break up the 150km distance to Pai and the off-road bit would take about 3-4 hours. Only one of those pieces of information turned out to be true - the bit about the distance. You can’t blame Steve for that; the last time he rode it, it was easy, wide and only took about 3 hours. But after some heavy rains creating deep gullies in the mud, some rock falls and landslides, some tree falls and then a dry season which turns everything into thick sandy dust it was the sort of trail which experts on trials bikes might relish but there are two significant differences between an expert on a lightweight trial bike and me on a 300kg adventurer. Nevertheless OCD Lawrence and belligerent Roop dug in and attacked the trail, bouncing the front wheel over boulders and fallen tree, using the power to drag the back wheel out of deep ruts and through super-slippery dust, scaring ourselves as the front wheel skidded away from us, losing all ability to steer or keep the big bike upright, but I only ditched it once into the rocky bank at the side of the trail and at least it didn’t fully fall over, it just leant against my leg against the rock, pinning me down until Lawrence came along to rescue me. But that’s not the tale, if only that were the extent of our mishap. We hit the off-road trail after lunch, leaving only 5 hours of daylight, we had only managed to get 2/3rd of the way through before the sun started to noticeably drop, we didn’t have proper provisions with us to camp so we pushed on trying to make up ground more quickly despite the increasingly difficult terrain. This was no longer adventure-biking fun, it was bloody scary and physically exhausting. I was employing the standard mantra of “if in doubt use more power”, but it seems that there is such a thing as too much power on a steep mountain track less than 3 metres wide. I span up the back wheel trying to pull it out of a deep narrow rut which was threatening to pull the bike over, I suddenly got full traction and the bike surged forward, pulling me off balance. The front wheel glanced off a large rock, sending me off my intended trajectory, veering abruptly to the right. This is not good, the edge of the trail is less than 2m to my right but the bike was already going there too fast and leaning hard right. There was only one outcome here, I had unwittingly steered the bike off the edge of the trail and down a near vertical mountain drop with banana plants, creepers, dense undergrowth and bushes growing at a jaunty angle against the steep descent. An instinctive reaction must have caused me to jump clear, I flung myself off the bike and down the side of the mountain, falling about 30m through the creepers and undergrowth, fearing that 300kg of bike was about to come crashing down on top of me. As I plummeted through the jungle I had images of being smashed by a cartwheeling KTM, but someone was looking out for me this afternoon. I dug my hands and feet into the jungle floor to stop my descent and swung around to gratefully see the bike had been caught by a banana plant and was perched about 4m below the trail on its wheels. I was another 20m below it. I could hear Lawrence’s engine approaching and realised that he would never see me or the bike from the trail, and he’d be concentrating on keeping himself upright so if I didn’t get back up there he’d ride straight past me and leave me behind. It’s amazing how much adrenalin kicks in and how I managed to pull myself in full motorbike gear and helmet up the side of that mountain to shout at Lawrence from off the side of the mountain. I can’t imagine what he thought as he saw my head and hand waving frantically at him from over the side. He semi-abandoned his bike in the same rut which had collected me and came to survey the situation. This reminded me of the end of the Italian Job (the original), although losing this particular vehicle off the side of a mountain is no laughing matter, it’s game over for my journey …
- All limbs attached, no blood, some scratches and bruises
- Bike has clearly flipped 360° sideways down the mountain and is now balancing precariously 4m below the trail on a near vertical slope, held up by a very weak looking banana plant
- No chance of us lifting the bike out with just two of us
- We’re in the middle of a jungle in Thailand with at least 20km of tracks in either direction before we find a road
- The last time we saw any sign of life (tiny rural village) was over an hour ago
- No chance of getting any restraining straps out of my boxes, if we disturb the balance of the bike it’s likely to plunge to its death
The following morning two remarkable groups of people arrived. First to arrive, at 7am, were two local villagers with a huge rifle and a machete. They reccied the situation and went off to get more assistance. Then the most amazing sight of Big-Dog Steve and his mate Jonny coming the other way down the trail on Steve’s motorcross trial bike having been forced to abandon Jonny’s 4x4 truck several km further up the trail due to a fallen tree. They had left Chiang Mai at 5:30am to reach us. The villagers had a plan, they brought large hoes and pick axes and started cutting a new trail into the side of the mountain to lead down to my stricken bike. They supported the new narrow path with branches hacked off trees with machetes and packed the earth against them to make a narrow horizontal pathway in what used to be a near vertical drop. Steve and Jonny brought more straps and by 9am we had driven the bike up a new pathway, supported from above with straps to ensure it didn’t topple off the side again and back onto the relative safety of the main trail. Cosmetic damage to the mirrors and screen mounts can be replaced (again), but most significantly my bike started first time, dusted itself off and kept moving. The bars have twisted in their mounting bracket so achieving a straight line involves turning the bars 20° right, which causes more balance and brain-ache problems as we negotiated the rest of the mountain. The final 20km of rocky water crossings, sand-filled ruts and steep descents were super-stressful considering the last mistake, Big-Dog Steve continued to exercise his guardian-angel wings by pushing, pulling, lifting and re-righting our big bikes as we struggled through the forest. Even he dropped his trial bike on one of the water crossings which made us feel a little less stupid about dropping our heavy lumps. The feeling of relief at reaching the road was second only to the gratitude to Big-Dog Steve, his mate Jonny and four ingenious villagers for getting us out. So my take on chaos theory is that I’d never have driven a motorbike off the side of a mountain had we not happened to see sexy Pieter riding down a remote road in India a couple of months ago.
Lawrence and I took a very slow and steady road route up to Pai to settle into the Riverside hotel, me with very itchy eyes and sore bruises. As I parked the bike under our chalet block by the river a big German guy approached saying “You must be Rupert?”. Now my reputation has been known to precede me in some spheres of music education in England but not in a sleepy backpacker town in North East Thailand. It turns out that big German Frank has been following my blog since India; he came across it whilst surfing for motorbike adventure riding, found me on Facebook and we’ve been chatting about trips and bikes online but I had no idea he was checked into the Riverside hotel in Pai, now that may not be chaos theory but it’s a bloody small world and shorter odds than winning the Lottery. Maybe I should buy a ticket, I’m into random chance at the moment; what are the chances of meeting a Dutch guy who leads to you falling off a mountain? There aren’t even any mountains in Dutch-land! Had a good chat about bikes and life with Frank over a beer by the river, but as for the effects of plunging through the undergrowth, I wasn’t quite out of the woods yet, my eyes are really starting to sting.