Thursday, 22 July 2010

Lamphang to Chiang Mai -- The Final Stretch

Last time, we'd just pulled into Lamphang where we overnighted. This left us an easy one hour chug back up the #1 to Chiang Mai ...

This stretch of road is a delight, watching the hills that ring Chiang Mai turn from hazy blue in the distance into sharper focus and green in close up.

One of northern Thailand's most popular attractions lies here, in the form of Lampang Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (not to be confused with the Elephant Conversation Centre just up the road). You can also sign up for a mahout course there, but by this stage we were bum-sore beyond belief  -- we'd clocked up 2500km on this wonderful motorcycle odyssey and I really didn't want anything else between my legs for a while. (Um, let me rephrase that, it doesn't read quite right, does it?)

And so it was home to Chiang Mai, where so many exotic delights await in the form of funky boutique hotels, an eternal supply of spas and massages and wellness centres, cool music clubs, restaurants that ought to be world famous but are only half-full and only half-priced to what they would be in any other major city. And of course, that unmistakably gentle northern Lanna hospitality.

The next several blogs will be on the charms of Chiang Mai. But first I'll do one on the road rules of driving or riding in Thailand. Because in the 2500kms we covered I reckon I saw and experienced just about everything it's possible to see in terms of road behaviour. Jing Jing!

Check back for that one soon ... I'm still shaking my head in disbelief.




Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Agoda THAILAND specials end this week ...

You've got to take advantage of these crazy low season sale prices in Bangkok and beyond.

See www.agoda.com


Too good to miss ... jump on the plane NOW!!!

Lamphang - Of Pots and Potholes

And so, readers, Phil and I saddled up for the long ride from Sukhothai to Lamphang. It felt longer as the day blazed 40+ degree heat down on us, and we didn't take the easy way north ...

We enjoyed the beautiful tree-lined roads down to historical Kamphaeng Pet, where the road actually winds around old ramparts and temples as you enter the town, and over the Ping River (the same one that flows through Chiang Mai). We joined the #1 Highway here, for the final blast north on the homeward leg, soon reaching Tak (which is only 85 kilometres east of the Burmese border).

A friend of mine, Major Roy Hudson (retired) has lived in Chiang Mai since the 1950s and he contends that physically and culturally everything north of Tak is 'God's Own Country'. Amen, to that Roy. But I think that should be adapted to 'Buddha's Own Country'.

Highway # 1 is patchy. Sometimes flat, smooth and brilliant. Other times just potholes held together with a bit of tar. However there are some nice petrol stations and coffee shops where you can rest your weary arse. Or you can do what Phil did. Suffering from heatstroke, he wandered into a small office, smiled, said hello, and promptly threw up on their floor. Jing jing!

Instead of the owner berating him for ruining her office and scaring away the clients, she fetched him water, and a cold cloth, sympathetically patting his back while he projectile vomited vital organs across her floor. Only in Thailand.

Lamphang was a revelation. I'd heard much about it, but never visited.In the gathering twilight, the temples along the river gave it a really spiritual feeling. Bars and restaurants, many very funky, others more earthy, readied themselves for their nightly trade. Ceramic shops, pedalling wares from some of the area's 200 ceramics factories, add character and history to what I call a 'temple town'.

You see, Lamphang was started in the 7th century, and has been under the Khmer and Burmese in intervening periods. At least six really significant temples adorn the town, one of the most significant being Kaeo Don Tao, where the original Emerald Buddha (the famous one now in the Grand Palace, Bangkok) was enshrined. Buddha himself was said to have visited this province.

Along the elm-tree lined river are any number of boutique hotels, backpacker joints, and coffee shops where travellers swapped tales from the road ... like, 'Did you see that Australian bloke throwing up in that woman's shop?!?'










Tuesday, 20 July 2010

From Nan to to Sukhothai -- the exhilaration of acceleration

From Nan, there are options to head east across to Loei (supposed to be excellent riding and beautiful countryside) and Nong Khai (Friendship Bridge and Vientiane, Laos).

We opted to head south instead, taking in Uttaradit and Sukhothai.

As we suited up once more, it struck me that we had not seen a single farang (foreigner) since we left the Golden Triangle. It was a good feeling, as I felt we were now experiencing the real Thailand, beyond the tourist map. But ... I felt it was a crime that this amazing motorcycling countryside was not being experienced by more international riders. Oh well, their loss.

We blasted on down the 101 towards Phrae, which is a bit like the Plain of Jars, there is so much pottery being churned out and for sale along all the roads leading to and from it.

Then on to Uttaradit, along amazingly wide straight roads, like airport runways, lined with tall trees either side. The countryside whizzed by in a blur. My throttle got stuck in the 'open' position and I wrestled with it as I saw my speedo climbing: 120, 130, 140 kilometres per hour ... I wrestled it more ... 150, 160 ... alas, my struggles were in vain ... 170 ... it took me about 45 minutes to work out the problem -- I was turning the throttle the wrong way, and that's my story officer. Gee, it's scary to think that an experienced motorcyclist like me could make such a simple mistake!

Oh, the exhilaration, the freedom. Money can't buy that sort of feeling. It can buy you the motorbike, but not the feeling.

Uttaradit is marked by what I call The Big Durian -- a massive ode to the famously pungent fruit which smells something like old football socks dipped in diesel, but not quite as pleasant as that sounds.

And, would you believe it, I experienced the same rotten luck with my stuck throttle all afternoon down to the ancient capital of Sukhothai. The damn thing was stuck on 160 most of the way. I really should get it fixed ... er, one day!

After a long day in the saddle, we cruised in toward Sukhothai, passing Si Satchanalai National Park and Sawankhalok, both of which figured highly in this early artistic and cultural history of Siam, and are rich in art and artifacts.

The late afternoon soon glinted like light off a mirror ball from the gilt tips of temples. Long wide ornate promenades leading into the busy provincial capital.

We followed signs to the MG Guesthouse, along the river through old brick and wood places that looked as old as Thailand itself. But MG was a new motel-style place, set in modern landscaped garden with palms and trimmed hedges. Clean, airy, spacious with TV and an aircon for the princely sum of 400 baht per night for a single.

Phil and I mustered just enough energy to saunter in to town and enjoy a  two-hour oil massage (which cost around 300 baht if I remember correctly) and I fell asleep that night dreaming of my stuck throttle.












Thursday, 15 July 2010

Chiang Rai - the 1148: the best motorcycle road in the world?

Chiang Kham has not much to commend it, other than an amazing wooden temple. Some would say that's enough. But the ride down this extreme eastern flank of Chiang Rai province was a joy - corn fields, dramatic limestone upthrusts, valleys which fell away beneath us (sometimes literally, as the road shoulder had collapsed), and mile after mile of winding snaking roads.

We stayed in the small town's seemingly only hotel, a very low budget and drab affair, but woke up refreshed and ready to hit the road. Because today we were heading on to the much fabled 1148 ...

I suggest an early start because that way you enjoy the luminescent paddy fields in soft morning light, and enjoy a crisp windchill factor before the sun god kicks in. The 1148 starts soon out of Chiang Kham, flatly and smoothly enough. And then, AND THEN ...

Suddenly you're swooping and diving and sweeping and twisting and turning and doubling back. The 1148 has more S-bends in it than a plumber's showroom, jing jing!

Jaw dropping valleys. Limestone karts. All perfectly surfaced, all perfectly cambered. Unbelievable! Orgasmic!!!

So good in fact that I didn't bother to stop for a photo because I just wanted to keep going and going and going (hold on, isn't that the Duracell bunny?) so due photo credit above to GT-Rider.com, the best motorcycling site for Northern Thailand and Indochina.

And the 1148 does keep going up and up and up, then down and down and down. It finally flattens out at about the same time when your body says 'Enough, enough, I can't produce any more adrenaline!'. Then you're onto an arrow-straight wide section of a few kilometres which brings you to the junction of the road to Nan.

This, dear readers, is another section where you might just want to check that your throttle is working OK in the 'fully open' position. Just in case, you understand!

Phil and collapsed onto a bench in a coffee shop in Nan, drenched in sweat. Exhausted. Beaming wild eyed.

Phil, a veteran of several hundreds of thousands of motorcycle touring kilometres around the world, was shaking his head, speechless. (That was a nice change.)

Finally he fixed me in the eye and said: 'That is like the Old Pacific Highway in Sydney times a thousand!'

[Footnote: if you want to reach the 1148 from Chiang Mai, take the road to Phayao then across to Chiang Kham. It's a half day ride.]






Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Real Amazing Thailand ... not on the tourist map.

Every now and again in a traveller's life there's a day that stands out as a 'real' travel experience, because it's not scripted, not planned, completely spontaneous and utterly authentic. I was about to have one of those days as we continued our motor bike tour of northern Thailand ...

Phil and I fired up the motorcycles after a photo opportunity at the huge golden Buddha who sits serenely on the Thai side of the Golden Triangle. The plan was now to follow the Mekong River around as we tracked east on the 4007, keeping the mighty muddy river on our left. Its levels fluctuate vastly depending on the season, and now it was over 7m deep, considered a level at which it gets 'interesting' as it churns its way across from Yunnan all the way up in China through the Indochina countries to finally disgorge itself in Vietnam.

Before too long we were passing through Chiang Khong, the well known border town where backpackers and 'visa runners' gorge noodles and hop on ferries across to Laos. Every now and again the ridge would rise, and the jungle would open itself up to a wondrous view of the river, with boats fast and slow playing their trade against the current, and the Laos jungle holding tightly onto whatever secrets it keeps.

We picked up the 1155 and tracked the Mekong a little more until we came to a T-junction near Wiang Kaen (the eastern most district of Chiang Rai province). I turned right. But after 100 metres, I pulled over. Something didn't feel right. Should we have gone left? (The signage in Thai offered no clue, of course! One squiggle pretty much looks like another.)

We U-turned then found the road getting smaller and smaller until we came across a very sleepy village. This was definitely not the right road either. What the ... ?

I pulled up outside a house/shed to consult my map. No sooner had I switched off the ignition than there was a beaming Thai face right next to me, offering a glass of whiskey. I beamed and declined with thanks. It was not quite 11am. By the time Phil had pulled up, this guy was pointing across to this shaded carport-like shed where I could see about half a dozen of his mates sitting in a circle, with several bottles of Sam Song Whiskey in front of them.

They motioned us to join them. We exchanged greetings. With sign language and my sketchy Thai I tried to signal where we were supposed to be going. They laughed. Have a drink, they said. Phil is a teetotaller, so I had to take one for the team. I can't stand bloody whiskey. Not even at night. Aaargh! NASA would be interested in this stuff. Have another they insisted.

These guys were local pomelo farmers, finished their morning shift. Sitting around on the dirt floor, slicing, dicing, cubing, and julienning vegetables all to go into a huge pot for lunch. I hadn't even noticed till then, all their womenfolk were sitting off to the side, gas-bagging, while the men prepared the food. This is apparently very common in northern Thailand rural areas (much like an Aussie BBQ really.)

Have another drink. Hahaha. There was no taking 'no' for an answer because they didn't even ask the question, just topped up the glass. And topped it up, and topped it up.

They started handing around some spicy minced pork while the main dish was boiling off on a little fire nearby. One of the guys lifted the lid, and -- oh my god! -- it was like something from Lord of the Rings. A flaming pig's head smiled at me from the bottom of the pot. I mean a whole damn head, ears, snout and all. I swear it winked at me. Jing jing!

Stay for lunch they said. Well, yeah OK, why not? After all the sun was belting down and this was so pleasant to be spending a really fun time trying to negotiate across cultures with uproarious results, whatever was said or charaded.

Then these hard young men did something truly touching. A couple of them went out, grabbed some cardboard sheets, and covered our motor bikes with them so they wouldn't get too hot. A caring gesture.

Soon after, a 4WD pulled up, and a most glamourous leggy lass sidled out. One of the guys' sister, who ran a flower market in Chiang Mai. Suddenly it was Phil, and not the pig in the pot, who was all ears! Within a few minutes he was announcing that they would be getting married. Uproarious laughter from the gang.

Lunch was not too soon, and the pork, vegetables, rice and soup went down a treat. 'Drink more whiss-a-key, Khun Stu.' One more for the team.. Aaargh!

As the heat of the day pounded on the roof, and the humidity reached triple if not quadruple figures, I could feel my energy sapping. Someone had turned up the gravity. Phil was still fine-tuning the wedding details in his inimitable gregarious style; he was doing fine with the ladies.

In a moment of clarity I realised we had a lot of kilometres yet to go. We had to get out of here while I was still able. I went to slip some money to our gracious host (a nominal sum just to cover the whiss-a-key and the food, not a big showy farang amount). It was summarily declined.No, wouldn't hear of it. This was not about money it was about friendship. 'Thailand Australia friends, number one.' We made our excuses and left, to a big farewell of waves and laughs.

While the details of that day are not so clear, thanks to the Sang Som, I'll always remember it. I'm ashamed to say the whiskey wiped the guys' names from my memory. And Phil I'm sure still dreams about whats-her-name. But I'll never forget the day I took a wrong turn and discovered the real Amazing Thailand.

I've marked it on my GPS.








































Monday, 12 July 2010

Bangkok and Chiang Mai voted Best Cities in the World


In Travel + Leisure magazine's World's Best Awards announced today, Bangkok regains the top spot it last won in 2008 as the world's best city.

And Chiang Mai is snapping at its heels in the number two spot. Jing Jing!

No surprises there for me. (Of course if you asked me, I'd say the order was back to front but I don't want Chiang Mai to be spoiled by the fame.)

 To clarify, the voting was done before the recent upheavals, but now that things are normalised again, Bangkok is back to its usual bubbling brilliance anyway.

 Meanwhile, the Peninsula Bangkok was named as Asia’s number 1 city hotel (number 7 globally), with strong showings by the Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai (27), and the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Devi in Chiang Mai (45).

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Golden Triangle -- Hall of Opium Museum, what a trip!

And so, it was farewell to the four-legged surefooted elephants at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant camp, and back to the nimble two-wheeled possibility of my BMW 650.
  
Not that we went very far before dismounting … about 500 metres to be exact.

You see the Hall of Opium Museum is directly opposite the Anantara’s entrance. It sits on a 40-hectare tract of landscaped land, with an impressive modern building housing the museum. (It was established by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, under Royal Patronage.)

 Intriguingly you enter in one side of the building and exit via another. The starting point is a long uphill ‘tunnel’ with disconcerting bas relief mural images of suffering opium users. It’s as though Picasso’s war-time masterpiece La Guernica and that other bloke’s The Scream have fused into one 3-D walk-through work of art. Jing jing!
 
Then you enter a series of very modern and airy chambers dedicated to different aspects of opium. Its international history (and a big hello to you Doctors Jardine and Matheson), its local popularity, its booming prosperity, the tools of the trade, the smuggling rackets, the pushers and the users. All wonderfully and colourfully curated. Posters, animations, videos, 3-D recreations.

 There’s a net feeling of sadness: what a wasteful (not to mentioned wasted) outcome opium produced. Of shattered lives and dreams. The needle and the damage done.

 A powerful and potent portrayal. Do not miss out on this.It's a real trip, man.

(Footnote: don’t be fooled by a lesser imitation in the touristy part of town billing itself as the Opium Museum. Visit the real one.)

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Golden Triangle -- How to Drive an Elephant


A three day mahout course sounded like a real, well, hoot. And it was a hoot until the last item on the agenda day 3 ...

Picture me with a plastic glove on, with my arm -- nearly up to the shoulder -- thrust all the way up an elephant's butt with a tiny thermometer taking its temperature. For the record, Boon Na's temperature was normal, thanks for asking, and the elephant registered barely a thing other than thinking 'gee, those flies are a nuisance today'.

The things I do to get stories for you, my dear readers.

By the end of the course I was actually emotionally attached to my elephant. Since the first morning, I'd fetched him out of the deep misty jungle overlooking the Golden Triangle each morning, giving him a massive feed of bananas to supplement the limitless supply of leaves he wrenched from trees en route.

Under the watchful eye of Khun Kwan Wit, I would then take him -- plus a whole host of other elephants -- for a morning bathe in the river. It was like these elephants were young playful puppies. Like kids in a bath with a new rubber duck. The trumpets of jubilation!  At the mahouts' command they'd duck their heads under the water. Or their whole bodies. Or re-surface again. All the while I sat there on its back, scrubbing its bristly skin and lapping it up. I felt one with nature. Then, on command, all of a sudden bath time was over.

We'd saunter back to camp, itself a pleasant sunny square of thatched houses and stables, where kids kicked soccer balls, and the womenfolk busied themselves with weaving silk.

Over the three days I practiced my driving skills. Slalom courses. Mounting and dismounting in countless different ways, with the elephant absolutely faultless in its understanding of my mangled Thai commands. You could climb on and off via its head, its trunk, it's cocked leg, by having it lie down and grab its ear and swinging a leg over. But my funnest dismount was sliding down its trunk.

The rest of the time was spent practicing my driving. An elephant has four gears: forward, backward, left and right. Reverse gear is the most fun: you toggle back and forward in your seat while yelling 'Back up ya brutish bugger!' in Thai. Sure enough, the thing reverses.  Given their size you expect to hear the beeps of a reversing truck.

The satisfaction of guiding one of these behemoths through natural primary jungle in somewhere as exotic as the Golden Triangle is inestimable.

Especially when I look into their eyes and they seem so damn omniscient.

To qualify for my mahout’s certificate, I had to take its pulse (behind its ear), count its toenails (at the end of its feet, duh!), and measure its height. To do this you measure the circumference of its foot pad then double it. Jing jing!

Then it was on with the rubber glove …talk about tough love.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Amazing Thailand, Amaaaaaaaaaaaaazing value!

Now is a great time to visit Thailand. Why? Apart from the benefit of slightly lesser crowds, the rainy season is also upon us. But what that usually means is a bit more cloud during the day, a big downpour in the afternoon, and clearing for a beautiful Singha sunset.

Great excuse for a lazy siesta without feeling guilty is the way I see it. And, the skin cancer will be slower to onset!

Anyway, here's a random sampling of some of the amazingly cheap deals now available in Thailand:

Anantara Hotels (www.anantara.com): As part of the ‘Sawasdee! We’ve Missed You…’ campaign, six of Anantara’s luxury resorts  in Thailand have reduced the prices of their best available room rates by up to forty percent, giving everyone the opportunity to be pampered in 5 star luxury for as little as BHT 3,060 (including breakfast). For more information of the call the reservations line on 02 476 1130 and ask about the ‘Welcome Back to Thailand’ offer, email reserveanantara@anantara.com or call the Anantara resort of your choice. 


Sheraton Pattaya Resort (www.sheraton.com/pattaya): Rate starts from THB 5,700++ per room per night inclusive of nightly accommodation in selected room category, daily breakfast for one, complimentary daily high-speed internet access. Book now until December 23, 2010. For more information or reservations call 038-259888 or email:reservations.pattaya@sheraton.com.


Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok (www.shangri-la.com): One of Bangkok’s leading riverside hotels, presents Dream Deals – an offer that allows guests to experience the legendary Shangri-La hospitality from the moment you leave the airport terminal. With rates starting from only Bt 5,850++ per night in a newly renovated Deluxe Room, the Dream Deals offer allows guests to enjoy daily buffet breakfast for two, arrival airport limousine transfers and complimentary high-speed broadband Internet access from now until 31 August 2010. For more information or reservations, call a travel professional or the reservations department at Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok on (66 2) 206-8788, email: reservations.slbk@shangri-la.com 


Or head to www.agoda.com and see their Amazing Thailand Amazing Prices page, with hundreds of deals (average 30-50% off!) Bangkok, Phuket and Krabi hotels, plus specials in all other Thai cities too.


Wow, just looking down the list I can see a bunch of really great hotels I've stayed at, and many I'd love to stay at from -- no, that can't be right -- about $40 Aussie dollars a night. Jing jing!


So simple message is this: get yourself to Thailand NOW!