Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Farang Fever

1/1/10 - 20/1/10

The bridge over the Kwai. What to say? Its a bridge. Its fairly early on New Year’s morning, but there are still millions of people crawling all over it. A little yellow toy train shuffles first class passengers back and forth, scattering cattle class in all directions as it trundles across. There are no safety rails, this is Asia.

Its a pretty long ride to Sukhothai, and after being stopped yesterday by the immigration police, we run the gauntlet of another half a dozen police checkpoints before lunch, avoiding any eye contact, riding like we own the road. Which surely must have been built by the Americans. Many of Thailand’s highways were, and as a consequence are dead straight and mind-crushingly boring, almost on par with the Australian outback.

The complex of ruins, or Historical Park as the Thais call these places, at Sukhothai, sprawls over several square kilometres inside and out of the old city walls. The next day we wander around, on and off the bike for quite a while, before spotting the official entrances.

Being a little tired of Thailand’s Two-Tiered Price Structure however, we have a bit of a ferret around before finding a back door entrance.

Just to translate, the Two-Tiered Price Structure thing means a farang (foreigner) will pay up to ten times what a local pays for National Parks, UNESCO sites and pretty much anything else tourist worthy. So that, the WiFi rip off, the ATM rip off ($5 charge per foreign transaction), and market sellers and restaurateurs trying to farang-fleece us means we’ll dodge a farang tax anytime we see an opportunity.

That said, the ruins are quite impressive.

On the other hand, the mosquitoes here in Sukhothai are insane. In-sane. A by-product of the stagnant drainage ditch of a river which runs though the centre of town.

The dog out the back of the guesthouse we’re told is also mentally ill, which is why it whimpers all through the night. We’d probably whimper too, caged all day and unfed. Probably be a little deranged as well, come to think of it.

There’s another historical park 60km north, apparently quieter and more atmospheric (according to the LP), so we stop at Si Satchanalai on the way to Lampang.

We often curse the LP. It tends to sanitise the horrible bits, over-hype the average bits and lacks good down to earth recommendations about pretty much everything. But in this case its spot on. Thanks LP. For once.

Call us wimps, but we just can’t come at fried rat. After the dog episode in Sulawesi, the idea of munching on a crunchy bit of rodent just makes our stomachs turn. But we’re certainly not knocking the presentation of the ones we spot by the side of the road to Lampang. These little fellas, all trussed up with their innards perkily on display, are the best presented rattus norvegicus we’ve seen this side of Asia. The lady is selling not only rat, but also hot deep-fried sweet potatoes, the sum total of which roughly equates to a traditional Sunday roast in this little parallel universe of Thailand.

“Do you want another five Baht’s worth?” (of potatoes)
“Yeah, why not.”

The next day we switch back into Tourist Mode to visit the Elephant Rehabilitation Centre, north of Lampang.

Yeah they do a show for the tourists, but it seems to concentrate on what the elephants were actually trained to do – haul logs out of the forest.

There’s even an elephant painting demonstration. Obviously what some of them pursue for a hobby in their spare time. When not hauling logs, that is.

The original reason for this place’s existence is to serve as a proper hospital, so its a bit of a shame they don’t concentrate some of their efforts on educating the public about the real work they do. The poorly signposted hospital is tucked away out the back.

An old veteran being treated for abscesses stands to one side, munching on some bamboo shoots. He looks like he’s had a hard life.

Later, on the way out to some important Wat or other, we pick up some pork scratchings for lunch by the side of the road. Mm mmm. And just in case you’re thinking we’re not getting a balanced diet, grab a cup of pickled chillies to go with it.

The next day we take our time to Chiang Mai, tourist capital of the north. There are quite a few people doing the Round The World thing on motorbikes, but in the whole time spent on the road so far we’ve not encountered any. Not one. So the intention is to check out Chiang Mai, with an eye to returning for a Horizons Unlimited get together later in the month.

We didn’t expect to be bowled over by the place, because even though most Thais will eagerly ask you whether you’ve been to Chiang Mai, this only translates into a recommendation in the same way that Indonesians will always ask whether you’ve been to Bali.

Predictably but unfortunately, this farang-infested place fails to live up to anything in our eyes, so after renewing the import papers for the bikes at the local customs office, and doing an oil change by the side of the road at Tom’s garage we leave, ditching the idea of the Horizons thing altogether. A shame, but we figure there are more interesting things out there in the wide wide world.

Things like the Mae Hong Son loop. Or our version of it anyway, which cuts out the Mae Hong Son bit altogether. Because we’re so fed up with the farang tourist trail, and northwest of Chiang Mai is just more of it, we head north instead. To Fang.

Woken the next morning by a nearby loudspeaker announcing the latest government propaganda, we make an early start, backtracking southwest for a bit of a fang up to the Myanmar border, passing through the cloud layer and remote tranquil Hmong villages. The cherry blossoms are out, punctuating the wild mountain green at five or six thousand feet.

Oh by the way, did we tell you about all the loudspeakers strung up on telegraph poles all over small town Thailand? No? Ok, well you see Thailand is not a real democracy. Is there such a thing? Possibly not, but anyway... Thailand is actually an authoritarian military democracy. The government of the day is only really allowed to operate within the guidelines set down by the military. The military being answerable only to the King.

So of course the press is not quite free. A-la Malaysia. And whereas Malaysians are bombarded daily with religious propaganda courtesy of the mosques, Thais are bombarded with god knows what from all these loudspeakers strung up all round the streets. Whole towns literally come to a standstill at 8 o’clock in the morning when the national anthem is broadcast, an incredibly eerie sight. There’s a bit of Buddhist bollocks, a lot of feel good government propaganda and bizarrely, a whole lot of old-time music straight out of the early twentieth century. But we’re only guessing. It all sounds like ka ka kaa ka kaaa ka ka.... to us.

North of Fang, regions near the border are understandably sensitive and we pass through several army checkpoints, the soldiers at one of them surprised enough at seeing two farang way out in the wilds to actually lower the boom gate and give us a bit of a going over. Which is potentially very inconvenient. There’s only one road along the border, so if you’re turned back it means a pretty long detour.

We usually switch into Greeting Officials Mode at times like this. All smiles, laughing and joking and pretending we don’t have a care in the world. Of course it helps with the nervousness factor when you can actually show these guys your route on the GPS. You don’t mess with the army here. They own the place.

The road itself hugs the border for about 30 kilometres, during which we could probably just step over and stroll into Burma. Or maybe its mined, trip-wired and monitored with satellites and CCTVs. Or maybe we’ve seen too many James Bond movies. Soldiers outside one of the compounds, obviously expecting an imminent incursion, are fashioning bamboo spikes and digging them into the ground surrounding the perimeter fence.

Finally dropping down out of the mountains, we cross the tip of northern Thailand and pick up the Mekong at Sop Ruak, the ‘official’ centre of the Golden Triangle. Tourist dollars replaced opium dollars many years ago, so the only adventure to be had here is squeezing past the massive tour buses which clog the main street. We ‘officially’ last ten minutes in this ridiculous place, seven of which are spent stuck behind these diesel spewing monsters.

Further down, the towns of Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong are lazy, relaxed places and while definitely on the tourist map are still great towns to stop and do nothing for a couple of days.

Especially Chiang Khong, where the balcony (what a novelty!) of our room looks straight out over the Mekong to Laos.

The stretch of countryside between these two towns is beautifully rural; most of northern Thailand is. Since leaving Chiang Mai we’ve really started to enjoy this country and feel its such a shame the rest has been loved to death. Who’s to blame? Farang and Thais in equal measure most probably. Stupidity, greed, short-sightedness. Humans. We’re a plague. A disease without a cure. H1N1 bumps off a few frail pensioners and the world goes mental. What the world actually needs is some sort of super H1N1 which knocks off a few billion.

Zzzzchhshhhhzt.... resuming normal service....

Deciding its about time we made use of this tent we’ve been carting around with us, we decide to camp up in the mountains near the border with Laos.

There are some pretty spectacular views along the way near Doi Pha Tang, and by mid-afternoon we reach the camping area at Phu Chi Fa, which is... rubbish.

So we try another one a few kilometres down the road, which is... rubbish. The views of Laos further up are pretty stunning, but the camping thing is a dead loss, so we head back down off the mountain feeling like failures to Theong, another anonymous concrete Thai town.

On a perkier note, have we told you about how staggering the roads are here? Take the 1148 for example. We met a guy the other day who raved about the 1148. The best road I’ve ever ridden. Its a four-digit road for god’s sake. How good can it be? But this is what Thailand is like for bikers. Every road you hear about it is “The Best”, or in someone’s Top Ten rides.

And yeah sure, he’s right. Its good. Really really good. A veritable Nordschleife of a road. It tumbles and turns beautifully cambered, alternating between lazy sweeping curves and switchback hairpins, for mile after mile. The scenery too is gorgeous, something he’d failed to describe to us. Sorry, I was having too much fun. I’m going to have to go back and ride it again.

Originally we’d planned to ride it all the way into Nan, the capital of the province, but decide instead to turn off onto a secondary road and head up into some of the wilder Hmong village areas. The steep, narrow road immediately and almost shockingly turns to potholes. Shockingly, because they seem quite rare in Thailand. The road rises up through little villages and stunning mountain vistas, deteriorating as it goes, when again, even more shockingly, is transformed into a beautiful, billiard table smooth, go-kart track of a road.

How do the Thais do it? Why do they do it? There’s not much out here population-wise and yet the roads are... well... astonishing. Australian roads are appalling by comparison. In fact most of Thailand’s roads compare well with just about any country. And there are no speed cameras. In fact, outside of greater Bangkok there are virtually no radar traps or traffic cops. Do the Thais drive like maniacs as a consequence? No, of course they don’t. In fact we can’t say enough about how much we like riding here.

Later we stop in Pua for some noodles, and deciding we like the look of the place, stay the night. And another.

The border with Laos east of Pua is extremely remote, and the people some of the poorest we’ve seen. Back in Pua, the family who run the hotel organise food and clothing donations for these people, as their farming methods seem unable to sustain them through winter.

The ride out to the border is bitterly cold and quite challenging. Only 200 kilometres or so on the map but deceivingly difficult, the day starts out bleak. England in winter bleak. It hangs around until midday, after which we shrug our shoulders and resign ourselves to a bleak afternoon. The hillsides, cleared generations ago of forest, are instead covered in the stubble of summer’s corn crop, the dead brown vegetation adding to the feeling of bleakness.

The next day we decide to bypass Nan altogether, the logic being if we’re going to try and see Laos and Cambodia before it gets too hot we need to get moving now.

So it’ll be a cook’s tour of Phrae, Kohn Kaen and Nong Khai, before crossing the Friendship bridge to the Laos capital, Vientiane.

Some of the roads along the way are an absolute riot; you’re literally riding along with a big grin on your face. Or you’re suffering from some sort of mental deficiency. One of the two.

Its same day service at Kohn Kaen for the Laos visas. Well officially its a three day wait if you pay 1200BHT per visa. Unofficially its 1400BHT for a 10 minute turnaround. We hate these sorts of official pocket money scams. We can’t afford them for one. And let’s say we’d chosen the three day option. The guy behind the counter would’ve gone straight back to what he was doing before we turned up – surfing the internet. But the alternative of paying for two extra nights’ accommodation in Shitwater Thailand is actually dearer, so what choice do you have? Sigh.

But we’ve been looking forward to Laos, and the day finally arrives. After clearing Thailand, we cross the Australian funded and built Friendship bridge, careful to switch to the right-hand side of the road when we’re over....

No comments:

Post a Comment