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Back on the blog.. off the bike for now!

Well, it happened again. After a nice flurry of activity my blog was silent for a couple of months. I’m planning on doing a few entries to share a couple of the stories along the way through Laos and Cambodia. To skip way ahead to today, I’m back in Bangkok for the 4th time preparing my bike to ship to the next leg: Amsterdam to Magadan.

Magadan??? What?? Yeah, well, after meeting a few people I’ve since realized that it is unreasonable to ship to Mongolia then drive to Europe now because even though the weather is starting to warm up, the river levels are too high to do the fun routes. I’m going to stop being a contrarian and head the direction that everyone else does: Europe -> Asia. Hopefully I’ll be able to meet up with other riders along the way so I can take more adventurous routes than if I were traveling solo going the other way. I guess I’ll not complete an “Around the world” trip, but hell, that is just a flag planting exercise anyway.

You pay attention in your geography class? If yes, continue.. if no, skip the next paragraph.

My planned route is to ship to Amsterdam then visit Germany, Luxembourg, back to Germany, Switzerland, northern Italy, the south of France, Spain. Then from Spain, take the ferry to England and tour the UK. Take the chunnel (CHUNNEL!!!!!) to France then head through Germany to Poland. Depending on time, head from Poland to either Ukraine if I’m short on time or south towards Turkey around the Med Sea area. In either Bulgaria or Turkey, do a major bike maintenance and sort visas. Then head to Georgia and study russian for a couple of weeks in Tbilisi if I can find a class. Get through or around the Caspian sea to either Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan. Eventually end up in Uzbekistan (Qalaysiz!) to Tajikistan then back up to Kyrgyzstan. Head BACK into Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan!!!!!!) then to Mongolia for middle of July. From Mongolia head to Magadan via the “Old summer road”. Finish up in August or whenever it is too cold to ride by shipping back to Vladivostok then to the USA.

Now that wasn’t too bad, was it?

Where have I been while not updating my blog? Check out my new updated route pic. You’ll also find this on my pannier of my moto.

DRZ 400 Motorcycle Around the World

Here's the updated route for my little DRZ 400 motorcycle traveling around the world. But not really around this time. Just traveling the world.

Laos mega-mini update

Sorry about lots of text and only a few pictures… but the internet hasn’t been so accessible lately!  On to the post…

I’ve never seen a sky as dark as in Laos.  The amazing invisible line that creates borders never ceases to amaze me.  Well, in this case, there is a river, the Mekong.  As soon as you cross the border, you know that you are in a different country.  Laos is a communist country by label, but I didn’t really expect much of a difference.  The red flag sporting the hammer and sikle is everywhere usually accompanying the Laos Flag.  I haven’t seen any recognizable international chains, but I haven’t been to any big cities yet.  So far in my few days of driving around, it seems like there aren’t any.

There are villages after villages.  Cows are grazing on the side of the road next to the kids who are playing in the street.  I really have to watch my speed to make sure that I can always come to a complete stop because there always seems to be something or someone in the way.  Scooters outnumber 4 wheeled vehicles probably 30 to 1.  Surprisingly, most of the vehicles I have seen are newish Toyota pickup trucks.

The people here are easily as friendly and curious as the Thai.  The language spoken here is Laos but it is similar enough to Thai that I just speak DaveThai (waaay worse than DaveSpan) at them and they seem to know what I mean after about the same number of attempts as it takes back in Thailand.  I understand that Loas is an older and more original form of Thai.

For the first couple of days, I was in Central Loas.  Here there are mountains that seem to spring out of nowhere.  They go straight up into the sky to a point.

Other highlights:

Giant Laos Cave

* Super big cave where I met a swiss woman and her brother.  The swiss woman works for a bomb disposal unit for the swiss army who is contracted to rid Laos of the ordinance that the USA dropped here during the Vietnam war.  Fortunately, I resisted the urge to ask her if she had a swiss army knife or had seen The Hurt Locker.

* There are really only a couple of paved roads in the entire country.  I haven’t been here long but it doesn’t take much to find offroad tracks.

* Everyone here is extremely friendly and always smiles or waves at me on the bike.  It makes riding here a true pleasure.

Today: 306mi a new record!

To Laos!

Sugar cane driver

Sugarcane truck drive in I-San

The end of an era is soon.  I will be leaving my Thailand to check out a new country — Laos.  I don’t know much about it, I haven’t even opened up my Lonely Planet to Laos.

Today’s ride was pretty fatiguing.  It was 330km of asfalt and a tiny bit of dirt while trying to avoid some city traffic.  We probably spent more time driving slowly through the dirt and taking wrong turns (me in the lead, following GPS!) than it would have if we had driven through town.

We’ve been in the I-San area of Thailand.  There are sugar cane plantations everywhere with overfilled trucks dropping sugarcanes all over the road.

My hotel room overlooks the Mekong River.  The water level is low and is mostly sandbar.

Nan to Khon Kaen

The right side of my face usually isn't so swelled. This was also from Day 2.

The roads just seem to keep getting better and better.  Today John, Kelly, and I  did a 300 km ride.  I met them in Bangkok before I got the bike and for the longest time, they just figured I was pretending that I was a motorcycle traveler.

I’m pretty lazy tonight.. so here’s the summary mini-post style:
* stung in the face by a barbed bug.  ouch.  face swollen looks like I got hit minus the bruising
* second time that happened, first time on way to CM.  I got hit right above the mouth and I had well.. bee stinger lips
* Roads amazing.. views amazing.. Thailand people so incredibly nice– always waving hello, smiling, curious

Does a DRZ with a 27 liter Safari Tank float?

Dean and his KTM 950 SE Erzberg Edition being towed behind a taxi

Thailand is a different place — once you’re out of Bangkok there is no traffic, no hurry, and no problems.  I approached Thailand like I approached (rightfully, IMO) Latin America with great caution.  I always keep my eyes on everyone and my hands over my pockets.  In my hotel room, I lock up my laptop.  When I take a bathroom break on the bike I lock my ipod and phone up in my panniers.

The more time I spend in Thailand, the more I realize I’ve been acting paranoid.  The Thai people truly seem to be more honest than certainly the average American.  For instance..the first day I was in Thailand I was walking down the street and checked the time on my phone.  As I continued down the crowded sidewalk after putting my phone back in my pocket this old lady started screaming at me.  Tense up.  Cover pockets.  Turn around cautiously.  The lady is screaming at me and pointing at the ground at a 100 baht note that fell out of my pocket!

I love it here!

On to the story… I met Dean the first day of my travel on my DRZ as I was heading up to Chiang Mai.  I was driving along the road spacing out as usual and saw a huge travel bike.  As usual anywhere in the world when I see a lone bike on the side of the road, I pulled over.  Upon closer inspection, he was setting himself up to be towed behind a taxi.

A week or so later Dean and I met back up to travel from Chiang Mai to Pai via as much offroad tracks as possible.  I’m on my little bike/big tank DRZ 400 that still has a little offroad capacity left.  Dean’s bike.. well, it is a crazy KTM 950 SE Erzberg Edition with an even crazier x-racer riding it.  Her name is Betsy.  She and Dean rode from Australia to Thailand via West Africa (Congo!! Angola!!) through central Asia ended up on the old Road of Bones in Russia.

The first day of offroad was a little technical but not soul destroying– A good day.  A very good day.  Naturally, we celebrated with a few beers and a good meal in Chiang Dao.  By meal I mean I ate almost an entire lamb because we went to “The Nest” and joined their meat bbq buffet.

As seems to be my routine, we got an early start at the crack of 11am.  The road went from nice highway -> 2 lane road -> national park.  At the entrance to the park was a pole barrier with a couple of guys in the guard shack.   They insist that we pay 200 baht ($6.50) per person to enter the park!  We cause a huge stink with me trying to speak my broken Thai and Dean using his proficient miming skills to no avail.  Thais pay 20 baht ($0.65) and we farang have to pay 10x!  What crap.  And all of time while our negotiation is happening, they are scooters and local pickups crossing the barrier with no fee.

I know what you’re thinking.  I’m a wining baby for complaining about a $6.50 park entrance fee.  Now that I’ve been here for a while, I know that $6.50 can get you a pretty nice hotel room for a night.  Consider it more like paying $45 to get into a National Park back home.  I do mind.  This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.

We ended paying.  Suck.

After all the wining and complaining, the roads through the national park were beautiful.  We crossed up a switchback rich mountain pass and were rewarded with outstanding views.

Northern Thailand Village

We continued riding on and on through this nicely paved road and ended up stopping for a snack at the local gas station.

Thailand old-style gas station

We stayed there for a while and Dean had a Milo, which made him very happy.  He was singing Milo slogans that kept going way over my head.  No Milo in the USA.  It tasted like a malty sugary milk drink.  Meh.

Navigation in this part of the world is always difficult because once you leave the major roads, most road signs are in Thai.  Fortunately, I have GPS and pre-marked coordinates of routes based on a conversation the previous night with a Northern Thailand tour guide Luke.  He didn’t give us coordinates, but I assumed that I would figure out what he meant by looking at my GPS map.

Signs and arrows are incredibly helpful if you're illiterate to the local language

We make it out of town and finally start riding some dirt.  It is in PERFECT condition.  Very smooth and freshly surfaced– it was a dream to ride over at any speed.

Beautiful dirt roads

However it started becoming a little too fresh.

Heavy earth moving equipment? No problem.

The earth mover moved over to the side a little bit so we could pass.  Dean went first.  He dropped down the steep roadbed towards the machine and right before he got there the operator, while making eye contact, flinched the machine towards Dean to mess with him missing Dean’s KTM 950 SE by a hair.  Funny guy.  Really funny.

I had no problems with my lil DRZ 400 and scooted down the slope.  I love my little bike!

06 drz downhill adventure touring

Nicely surfaced dirt switchbacks as we continued through the trail.

You’ll notice that my tank panniers are now mounted to the rear of my bike.  This is because the strap was too short and kept vibrating loose almost falling into my wheel.  It is amazing how much harder on a bike it is riding off road than on as this never happened during the thousands of miles of on-road travel but has happened every time I take the DRZ offroad.

Quality dirt!

We come to a junction and see the first water crossing.  I haven’t done many challenging water crossings because where I was traveling the most offroad in Bolivia there was no water.  Secondly, all the offroad riding I’ve done in Texas did have a little water but they were all slow flowing dam controlled trickles.  There the only challenge was not to slip on the algae.

This first water crossing was not only across the deepest river I’ve ever tried to cross, but also the fastest flowing.

For Dean, this was no problem as he’s ridden some of the most challenging roads in the world like tracks through the Congo and the Road of Bones.  It was confidence inspiring to face this with an experienced traveler.

How to do a water crossing that looks like it is deeper than your boots:

  1. Strip down to your skivvies and put on some sandals (Chacos!).  You don’t want to ride in wet riding gear all day if you can avoid it.  Wet boots = bad
  2. Walk across the river and try to find the smoothest and shallowest route
  3. Mark the exit on the river bank with a stick so you know where to aim
  4. Return to bike, in my case, put on helmet and gloves (not quite ATGATT).  Stay in undies and sandals
  5. If possible have a spotter on the downstream side of the bike to prevent the bike from being washed away
  6. Ride the bike slowly through the river keeping your weight towards the upstream side of the bike
  7. As the river starts to shallow, throttle up the bike and build enough momentum to ride up the bank

Other things to consider is if the crossing is going to be incredibly challenging because of fast flowing water, take off panniers so bike is easier to maneuver and water flows through the bike.  Or maybe you want to leave the panniers on to keep more weight on the bike to keep it from floating away.  I’m not really sure, this is the internet, I just pretend like I know what I’m doing.

The first crossing went up to my upper thigh with slightly rocky bottom but generally smooth.

I'm spotting dean across the first water crossing.

Water crossing number 2 with the village watching

We get across and amazingly there is a guy there who speaks English. He tells us that the people here do not speak much Thai and that they are a migratory people who live off the land as hunters.  He is the town teacher and tells us that we went the wrong way and that the road to the next town has an easier route.  Me, confident with my GPS maps, I say that we want to take the more challenging route.

I scout around a tiny track that leads to a very small village at the top of the hill with just a few pigs and sleeping hill tribesment come to investigate.  The only route to the next water crossing is a footpath that both our bikes happily blaze.

The second water crossing was knee deep fir the first part, then a sandbar, then thigh deep for the second part.  By now, almost the entire village is watching– little kids, women, and adolescent males.

As I mentioned before, Luke, the tour guide told us about the route and had ridden it a day or two before us.  This confirmed that we were going the wrong way as his tracks were on the banks of the next water crossing as he was showing his group that it was doable.  They ended up turning around and taking a goat track through the forest to avoid the water crossings. There was a downed tree that they had to get under that we didn’t think Dean’s huge Super Enduro would make it under, so we didn’t have much of a choice.

The next few water crossings were increasing in difficulty as the river got more narrow so it became deeper and flowed faster.

drz watercrossing adventure touring

The DRZ going across

The exit for the 3rd crossing

As I was catching my breath for after the 3rd crossing, a man starts to climb the bank with a HUGE gun slung across his shoulder.  I start to get nervous.  I don’t know why he’s here with the giant gun.  However, when he gets closer to us, he produces a huge toothmissing grin.

Dean took this photo of one of the town’s hunters with his SUPER long barrel black powder gun.

Thailand Hilltribe hunter

Northern Thailand hilltribe hunter and his gun with a barrel so long that it stretches beyond the frame.

I love Thailand!

The last water crossing was the worst.  Both Dean and I scouted it and I almost fell twice while just trying to walk across the river.  The water was a flowing torrent that was waste deep, rocky with a steep exit.   There was NO way we were going to get these loaded bikes across.  By this time I’m completely exhausted and we’ve already spent 3 hours to cross less than 1 km of road.  Our option is to either attempt to cross here and risk getting water into the bike or turn around and redo one of the other water crossings.  If we attempt this crossing and the bikes tip over or it is too deep, then we’re going to have to spend hours getting water out of the engine and exhaust.

The third option– there is always a third and more creative option — was to enlist the help of the villagers, who at this point were all adolescent boys/teens.  We started negotiating with the teacher translating to the boys.  They come down to 500 baht ($16 USD) but refuse to meet our 300 baht ($10 USD) to help.

We decide to start to attempt the crossing with full knowledge of us having no way to make it across on our own.  They did not call our buff and suddenly start to yell that they’ll do it for 300 baht.

Dean goes first.  He takes off his luggage and everyone surrounds the bike and push Betsy, his KTM 950 SE, through the river.  Dean is to the front of the bike manning the controls and throttle.  We get through the first half of the river with no problem.  The second half is flowing a bit faster and it starts to lift the front wheel.  This bike is HUGE and heavy and is starting to get washed away.  Fortunately the kids have it managed and push the bike up the river’s bank.

After his bike crosses, then his luggage flies across the river on the shoulders of the hill tribe kids.  We’re getting our 300 baht’s worth of service!

Dean's KTM 950 SE panniers crossing the river

I’m up.

Dean’s bike’s air intake is significantly higher than mine and it was dicey for him.  At this point, I’m extremely nervous about flooding my motorcycle.  The funny thing about water into your air box is that water doesn’t compress nor is it good for combustion.   What’s the worst that can happen..

6 Hilltribe teens helping my DRZ cross the river

People are covering my bike — even the front fender has a little kid helping it get across.  I’m standing towards the front of the bike manning the steering and throttle.  We enter the river.

The guys are pushing the bike faster than I can keep up.  I apply a little front brake to slow things down.  No effect.

My front wheel is off the ground.  The front of the bike is starting to float away from the back of the bike.  The DRZ starts to tilt sideways downstream.

The bike stalls.

#$%@$#%

I look at Dean for a second and then press the starter button.  (!) It fires right up.  Phew.

I’m now just barely holding on to the bike as all the kids in the back are feverishly pushing it up the bank.  Front wheel contacts ground.  Bike (clutch still in) rises up the steep bank with no effort on it’s or my part.

The DRZ 400 SC, powered by villagers

My DRZ, who I now call SuperChica because she flies is on the other side of the river.

Dean looks over at me and starts laughing and says, “I thought you were going to have a kitten!”

I don’t really know what that means in Australian, but I’m pretty sure it means I was a bit terrified.

Dean and his Betsy & me and my SuperChica are now happily on the other side of the river with no more crossings left and just enough light to make it to the next town.

I put my pants and boots back and hit the road.  The rest of the ride we try to make some time because we spent so much time in the river.  It is still dirt and the occasional obstacle, but as long as it wasn’t a water crossing up to my waste… it is no problem.

We made it across!

Tiger Kingdom and leaving Chiang Mai

I got to play with tigers!! Since it was the daytime and they're .. well.. lazy cats.. they were usually sleeping.

I’ve been very busy in Chiang Mai.  The first couple of days I worked on the bike followed by then working a paid job to develop a website for a restaurant/hotel.  I’ll post the link and details up later once the site goes live.  I think the site came out well and if anyone is in Chiang Mai, you should go check it out in person!

I took a little break and visited the Tiger Kingdom.  It was a surreal experience as I got to play with baby and adolescent tigers!  It was truly an amazing experience.

Now I’m on my way to Laos.  I’m traveling with Kelly and John who I met in Bangkok a couple of months ago.  They’re a fun couple from England and Australia.  I can barely understand John, but what I do understand is extremely funny.  Crazy brits and their “English”.