Thursday, April 7, 2016

Thailand - Going north

Funniest urinal sign ever...!
It's strange how quickly a place where you like staying can feel like home. When we entered the Panda Guesthouse, it felt like just another guesthouse. Leaving the Panda Guesthouse today, after a short rest waiting for Karen's arm to built-up sufficient strength to continue,  felt like leaving home. I guess that's good thing as it meant we had enjoyed our time there. I'm not one to get too attached to bricks and mortar though, to me it's nothing more than a roof over my head, something I also have in a tent. At the same time we were eager to go as we had been in Chiang Mai long enough. If you're thinking this all doesn't make any sense... then I've written it just as it felt, it didn't make any sense to me either! 

One thing is for sure, leaving felt strange. Part of us wanted to stay a couple of more days. Chiang Mai had that gravitational pull on us. At the same time we wanted to continue our journey, see more of Thailand's north and explore Laos. So we packed up, started the bikes and rode away. We had made a route in Garmin's handy Basecamp which would take us over scenic roads rather than main ones and it paid off. We had a smashing ride! Just what we needed. Only 30 minutes into the ride and we knew we had made the right decision. The reason it took 30 minutes is probably because that was the point where we left the main road with its endless collection of building along side it, behind.

We met a group of Irish riders on rental bikes, no doubt escaping the winter and swapping it for something far more exciting. One of them was spending an inheritance by going on a holiday 6 times a year! Lucky bugger! They were riding mostly Honda 500Xs, which were more than able to handle the twisties and make more sense on these roads than the bigger bikes. Cause that's what I hadn't mentioned yet: the roads here are anything but boring. There are more corners than straights. All bitumen, which wasn't what Mike had hoped for, but beautiful nonetheless. The spotlights we had fitted in Chiang Mai, to enhance our visibility to other road users, are absolute beauties. Despite using only 10 Watts each they make us so much more visible that it was indeed a good investment.

Meanwhile I had been stuffing around with a 'spare' GoPro I had been kindly given on loan by Vince. First attempts weren't encouraging. I couldn't switch it on with my gloves and was getting somewhat frustrated by the double button thing. The Sony is simple to operate, has a big button which is easy to find and can be operated with gloves. I'm sure many GoPro fans will go ballistic now and tell me the GoPro is easy to operate. Well, maybe, but the Sony is definitely easier then :-) In the end I switched it on and left it running... which flattened the battery in no-time. So battery nr 2 went in... which didn't make it to the end of the day either. Checking my video footage later showed that all the stuffing around must have moved the camera as the horizon was barely visible and it was set at some weird extreme view angle as well. In short I had heaps of footage but could throw most of it away... aargh!

To complement the already crappy video day, we found the Sony battery charger we have fitted in the pannier, hadn't charged the battery... as the cable had broken inside the connector. Out came my gas powered soldering iron, which has proved to be an invaluable tool as nearly every camera battery charger has rattled to bits so far. I've given up on those dinky connectors now and hardwired the charger in, via a separate fuse of course. Later that evening I played around with different camera settings and mounting points of the GoPro. 

Part of the problem is of course that my head isn't screwed on right... :-) it's on an angle to my neck! So even though I carefully mounted the sticky pads in the middle on my helmet, the horizon is at an angle on the video. I've compensated for it now and also set the GoPro to single button operation, instead of the default 2. Using only the front button also prevents the camera from moving again. I still think that for motorcyclists the button should have been on the left side, as the right hand is for the throttle. But at least, after plenty of trial and error, I was getting somewhere :-)

At the end of a great day riding, we had stopped at resort which had clearly seen better days. We shared a bamboo cabin, which was nice but to be honest we'd still rather be camping. The place wasn't bad, although a distinct sewage smell in the shower wasn't quite what we had ordered, but to be honest we've just spend enough time between 4 walls lately. Since we left end 2012, we have camped everywhere on this trip, even in China, but since Pakistan we had hardly camped at all and we were missing it. In Pakistan it wasn't an option, while in India it wasn't an option at all as filling up the tank already attracted a crowd there. Talking to cyclists, who normally free camp everywhere, it became clear that they had also given up on camping in India because of the crowds it pulled. We have camped in Thailand a bit and had hoped to do some more but Karen's broken arm and the subsequent doctor's advice not to do it, put a stop to that. Having a bamboo cabin was better than a room though as we could at least cook a meal on the petrol stove to give us the idea we were camping... only to find our normally trusty Coleman refused to cooperate as the pump didn't want to put any pressure on the tank... lovely! With a bit of stuffing' around we managed to get just enough pressure to boil some water for noodles :-)

The next morning we were given a breakfast big enough for an elephant... I guess they didn't know if we wanted fried or scrambled eggs... so they gave us both... and enough sausages for 8 people... plus toast...! We left with our bellies dragging on the ground! Karen was keen to meet her ancestors and visit a Karen Tribe village along the way. The Karen are often confused with the 'long neck' people, which strictly speaking applies only to the Padaung, which are a small part of the Karen people. There has been much written about the Karen, their history is already quite conflicting information, while perhaps even more has been written about the Padaung. The only thing I can find which seems undisputed is that currently they are basically a tourist attraction... which we found confirmed by the Padaung themselves. There is a lively debate if women can be exploited this way. We don't want to join that debate, other than saying it is wrong to exploit anyone in any way. Vince and Karen decided to have a look and came back disillusioned. It wasn't a pretty sight, the women clearly weren't happy with their fate and it felt indeed like the zoo someone had written earlier.

We continued on towards the Laos border and had a beautiful ride the whole way. Northern Thailand is an amazing place. The green, the rice fields, the mountains and the unbelievably good roads made sure we enjoyed every minute of it. We saw quite a few of those small single cylinder diesel trucks we had first seen in Myanmar too. They so encompass the beauty of simplicity for me that I just can't help but smile when I see one. We rode through rubber-tree plantations and saw the rubber dripping into the many buckets attached to the trees. The latex-like white sap coming from the trees is the major ingredient of the actual natural rubber.

At the end of the day we rode into the Sawadee guesthouse we had found on the net, where I checked my video footage and saw I actually made something which is useable now :-) Next on the list was repairing the Coleman stove, only to find the pump was working perfectly again...! We enjoyed a beautiful afternoon and evening, overlooking the Mekong river. On the other side is Laos... As the stove was working again and holding pressure now we cooked a simple meal of noodles and eggs. Mike scared the mosquitos away with a home made mosquito killer, made from an old Coca Cola bottle and several bits of broken mosquito coils. A kind of Moskitotov Cocktail. It worked a treat!