Thursday, 19 March 2015

Thailand, again

Laos Border Guard: Ok, that's your passport done, you can go and see the customs guy now.
M: Great, thanks.
LBG: Oh, and we will escort you over the bridge to Thailand.
M: Uhhhhh......ok? I can probably just go by myself. I don't think it's possible to get lost on a bridge.
LBG: Regulations. Motorcycles must be escorted over the bridge.
M: But not cars? That doesn't make much sense, but ok. I'll just go over with these other people in a car just behind me.
LBG: No it needs to be us escorting you.
M: Hmmm....
LBG: And you need to pay for it.
M: Making more sense now.

I had never heard of this before, but in fairness the bridge had only been open a few months and I had done no research. Over the next few minutes the price of the escort changed from 400 Thai Baht to 100,000 Laos Kip, 1000 Baht, US$35, 250,000 Kip before finally settling on 500 Baht. Utterly convinced it was a scam now I did the thing that I do best. I sat down, refused to move, got in the way and generally made life very difficult for them. The border captain came down and threatened to send me back to Laos (even though I was already stamped out) which I ignored - my passport was already back in my pocket and it wasn't coming out again for anyone. The customs guy had caught wind of the argument going on between me and immigration and refused to process my documents. So I followed him around shoving things in his face, distracting him from his vital game of Candy Crush, helping myself to documents he left lying around unguarded. After an hour of two they were so fed up with me that they stopped asking for money and let me go.

But then they actually did drive across the bridge with me. Strange. Maybe it was a real thing after all?

Thai Border Guard: Paperwork done, now you must pay 300 Baht in fees.
M: I don't think that's true.
TBG: Don't worry, it is an official fee, it doesn't go to me.
M: Can I get a receipt?
TBG: No.
M: Yeah, I see. But last time I came to Thailand there were no fees to pay.
TBG: You don't have to pay them if you don't want.
M: Not very official fees then are they?

One of the longer border crossing I've been through so far. Maybe I was willing to waste so much time there just because I didn't really want to leave Laos. Such a beautiful country with wonderful people. I had been vaguely following the Mekong river for about 6 weeks by this point and it was really sad to leave it behind, much smaller now then when I first found it in Phnom Penh.

Before the bridge existed the only way across the river with a vehicle was by the ferry. A business now rendered defunct by the bridge, the barges now lay abandoned on the banks of the river. Kind of sad to see.

But other things await. And more mountains in northern Thailand. A few months earlier I had made the decision to go to Cambodia and Laos first so I had a new visa and enough time to properly enjoy the roads up here that I had heard so much about from other bikers. And that turned out to be a good call.

Ok boys and girls, do we remember what happens in Thailand? That's right, it rains.

I didn't get far that first day before I took shelter in a petrol station. After about 2 hours the light was starting to fade and the rain had yet to ease up. There was a guest house in the back so I took a room for the night and some bachelor chow from the shop. About midnight I went out for a smoke and noticed another guest pulling in to the car park. Bit late. They ended up in the room next to me. They only stayed for an hour, but at least he got his moneys worth.

The next day it was only a short ride over to Chiang Rai. I wouldn't say there is a lot to do in Chiang Rai, but it was a nice relaxing welcome back to Thailand.

Somebody mentioned an art installation black house type thingy just outside the city so I went up to take a look.

No idea what it was all about but it was still impressive.

But then on to the one thing that I did know about in Chiang Rai. The white temple.

I really like religious buildings, any religion. But having been to so many Buddhist temples in South East Asia I was starting to get a bit bored of them. But then this one comes along and changes that. It really deserves its own adjective - spectacular is just not a good enough word.

It was hot. Really hot. Unbearably hot. So I headed in to the mountains to find somewhere to camp for the night, just in time to catch sunset.

But rather than camp I found myself in a small town and ended up sleeping on some family's front porch. They brought out bedding and food, then invited all the neighbours around for an argument.

I sat on the side and watched in bemusement. The shouting got louder and angrier, it all seemed to be directed towards one guy. I was constructing elaborate explanations. Maybe he had stolen something, or run over someone's dog and they were deciding his punishment. Or maybe he wanted to marry someone and this is how they agree on the dowry (not even sure that's a thing in Thailand). Or he might have been some sort of Thai James Bond, a spy from some neighbouring town and they were all discussing how to get a good ransom for him.

Eventually this guy came over and explained it all. It was a PTA meeting.

The next morning I was up very early as the family went to work.

After so long in Buddhist countries I was surprised to find so many Christians in Thailand. But I was quite enjoying seeing churches and other imagery for a change. Until I found this.

Not really what I wanted to find while still in my early morning semi-comatose state.

I stopped off in Chiang Mai and spent a few days at the famous Rider's Corner, the usual meeting point for bikers passing through this region. About this time 2 groups had just crossed Myanmar from India to Thailand - some of the first to be allowed to do so - so we spent a good amount of time swapping stories over steak and beer

Chiang Mai is really not at all a bad place. Considering it is so firmly planted on the tourist trail it was surprisingly laid back and hassle free.

But after not too long I was getting bored and looking forward to getting in to the Mae Hong Son loop - a famous route around the north west border of Thailand. 4 days required to complete it, 600km and 1864 corners. Closest thing to heaven you're ever going to find.

The first day was spent just getting to Pai, not very far north of Chiang Mai. It is pretty common for backpackers to rent scooters in Chiang Mai and ride up to Pai for a few days, probably crashing several times along the way. Not that I consider myself an expert or anything but it was good fun watching the banana pancakers struggle to work out how to open the fuel tank.

I spent a while looking for this. It turned out to be a house with some very unimpressed looking guy sat out front. I didn't stay.

There is an old World War 2 bridge in Pai which has become a bit of a tourist attraction. So I stopped off for a minute. I walked away from the Tranny only to hear a gigantic crash as it fell over 30 seconds later.

High quality Thai tarmac. It got itself wedged up against a phone box but someone else helped drag it upright again. Minimal damage - just the mirror. And a new paint job for my helmet.

Such a well known route is inevitably filled with tourist buses. The silver minibuses of death and destruction were the bane of my existence for a few days.

Always a good sign

After a while the traffic disappeared, which was nice, and the road turned into this, which was not as nice.

Now, I'm not entirely sure but I suspect that a road which has variously been described as a racetrack and 'the best in the world' would probably not be coated in gravel. Or maybe that's just me. But a far more reasonable explanation is that I managed to get lost.

Still, it was nice being by myself for a little while and I ended up staying in some very expensive guesthouse that night and having dinner in the river.

I didn't really want to go back to Chiang Mai but the rear tyre was in a pretty bad state by this point. I have to say that I was very disappointed with it - it managed to do only about 8000km before becoming dangerous even with my attempts to save it by limiting speed. But Chiang Mai was the best place to find a replacement. I picked up a second hand tyre for about £20 and carried on south.

Eventually I found myself on a very underused road following a river. It just so happened that this river was the border with Myanmar, the same river I had stood by months earlier dreaming about getting over there one day. But out here by myself, who was going to stop me? A few days earlier I was reading a story about some American tourist in China who got drunk one night and made a bet that he could swim across the river. The next morning he was found naked and unconscious by some farmers. In North Korea.

I carried on.

But the whole Myanmar thing was not just a pipe dream. I ended up eventually in the town of Mae Sot, home to one of the biggest border crossings between Thailand and Myanmar. I already knew that people had been using this border for years for visa runs, but I also knew that the Thai authorities were trying to crack down on that practice. But it had to be worth a go.

It took a lot of negotiating with the Thai border guards but eventually they relented and let me walk across the border for the afternoon. And even better, no money required.

I was only there for a few hours, wandering around aimlessly and eating things so there isn't really much to write about. I was there just to check another country off the list, get another stamp in the passport. Mostly just to say I had been there, even if I wasn't allowed to ride around.

Market with extremely questionable hygiene standards
I am really not a fan of border towns so I was wondering if it was a good idea that my only experience of Myanmar should be here. But honestly it made me want to go back. Even just wandering around looking lost I never felt targetted or threatened, things which very often happen when walking out of a border post. Lots of people wanted to talk, which is nice.

The country is slowly opening up. A few people have been allowed to ride across recently but only with escorts. Hopefully in the next few years that requirement will disappear and we will be free to go and explore a country in a way which hasn't been done before. And if border town people are like that, the rest of Myanmar must be amazing.

Back on the road and I was out of the mountains by now. But I was running out of visa and customs time and it was a long way back to Malaysia, I had to make a start. But somewhere along the way I contracted Ebola so I had to confine myself to bed for a 3 days to recover. It's amazing what sitting around in bed feeling miserable and watching Futurama back to back can do to fix things. Even Ebola. Who knew?

One night I found myself in a town populated by monkeys. I think there were some people there as well. But mostly monkeys.

And then on to something I had somehow missed on the way up.

Bridge over the River Kwai.

Also in the town is a large war cemetery. I think it's sometimes pretty easy to forget that World War 2 actually did envelop most of the world, and even though the knowledge is there it was a little weird to come across a British cemetery so far from home. But as always the War Graves Commission does an excellent job of maintaining it in an appropriate way.

The next week was pretty much the same as my first week in Thailand, just in reverse. The beaches were still there, as perfect as always. The heat and humidity were still there, not sure I would call that perfect, not perfect for me anyway.

But there is one more place worth mentioning. Songkhla.

If you go on the foreign office website and read the travel advice for Songkhla it does not go well. In fact you are advised to keep as far away as possible. Yet again they have got it completely wrong. I have no idea what world that lot are living in but it bears no relation to the real one. The number of places I have been to now where the foreign office promised instant death, the number of places where that hasn't happened. Songkhla may not be a world class destination, it's a fairly small town but for me that's most of the appeal. Nice people, good food, minimal tourism, a rickety vehicle ferry across the river and a strange mascot fountain on the waterfront. What more could you ask for?

I escaped Thailand on the last day of my customs time. Back to Malaysia to sort out onwards travel.

Bangkok may have cast a shadow over my visit to Thailand but this one more than made up for it. Those mountains up in the north deserve so much more time than I put in to them. Everyone goes on about the beaches in Thailand but I think the national parks should get more attention than they do. They are all very well run and maintained and they are everywhere all over the country. Go to Thailand, visit the beaches and islands but spend time inland as well.

That's not to say Thailand is perfect, far from it. It has very serious problems that nobody really seems to want to face up to. And while I don't think I would consider settling down there permanently I can understand what all the thousands of expats see in it. It's certainly on my 'need to go back' list, if only to work out where I went wrong on the Mae Hong Son loop.