Prelude to the Adventure
Bangkok (Krung Thep)
The planes just landed and I make it out of the shambolic and lackluster Suvarnabhumi Airport without any of the reported rogue customs entanglements or trickery. My cash is good to go from the ATM and I'm just leaving when I see two smartly dressed farangs hanging around outside. They aren't tourists as they have no baggage and look to be either missionary types or ajarn ankrit(english teachers). Thinking it's time for some advice on where the departure level taxis hang out to get around the dreaded taxi mafia (who lurk at arrivals) I ask them if they know. It's no good though as they either play they don't know what I'm saying or enjoy winding up expats. I'm tired and jet-lagged so set out to find it myself.
I find it after five minutes scouting, it's on the upper floor (2 escalator flights above the arrivals level). Give me Don Muang any day of the week though!
A twenty minute taxi ride to where the ever-benevolent 'Patrician' has been storing my bike. The key fits and a quick check of the tyres, fluids sees all is well. One bump start later and she's good to go.
Lets hit the road! It's good to be back in the land of smiles!
On The Road
It's just gone 0800 hrs and I cut from Highway 7 west to Highway 9 north. I might be the Watch-Rider but I'm not on full-on photographic mode for this one (sorry readers). I've got a tight schedule to keep and I'm nowhere near my home base, also I've heavily loaded the bike which makes start-stop photographing longer and more dangerous.
The roads are quiet and the traffic's light so the goings good, I make good time and reach the intersection with Highway 1. A quick blast north-east and its onto Highway 2 no problems. Fuel prices are up from when I was last in-country, but what you have to spend more on you just cut back on something else, so it's all even and square in the big picture.
Highway 2 is the primary highway for all of Isaan and passes through some of the biggest cities in the north-east. For over three hundred miles until I reach the border town of Nong Khai it's where I'll be riding.
It's time to take a ride on the 'Isaan Trail.'
On The Isaan Trail
Ubon Ratchasima ( Korat)
'The trailblazing in Isaan is in full swing by the time I've reached the first city on the chart. But its rammed with morning traffic, Thailand's oppressive heat is, as usual, bearing down relentlessly and the familiar stench of diesel fumes mixed in with all the other traffic filth is souring my usual fanatical enthusiasm for the road. My visor was down and I was wearing a filter but still some always creeped through. The weather can only get hotter but it's no sweat as long as this bike of mine doesn't give in on me...'
WR's 11th October 2007 - Korat, Thailand
So there I was, fifty miles north-east of my starting point in Bangkok cruising through Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) wondering what the blazes to expect from the fabled lands of Isaan. Although not quite on the border of 'Isaan' Korat is somewhat higher above the sea-level than the surrounding
Well I'd heard all about Isaan (which makes up north-eastern Thailand) the place years earlier as every expat has from the usual sources, the bars, the gossip, the local media and so on.
'It's a poor place but full of beautiful women!' Exclaimed one love-struck and enthusiastic writer for Farang Magazine.
'Don't go there, the people are very (expletive removed) bad and will try and cheat you!' Some farangs and interestingly some thais also exclaimed.
One thing was for certain, north-eastern and eastern Thailand do have some of the poorest quality land in Thailand, no port for commerce and shipping (Chonburi province excluded) and a majority of the women working in the 'ahem' entertainment industry usually hail from these regions.
I was visiting in October, still low-season for the tourists in Thailand although that won't count for much in Isaan as it's not a tourist destination that can even compete with the likes of Hua Hin, but still I'm expecting it to be quiet.
I roll into Korat, expecting it to be different somehow from a typical provincial city, but I don't feel anything very 'thai' about it other than it's busy, the locals are typical city thais; all on the move and a non-stop pace. It's quite a big city, and situated close-by to the capital so for some it's a handy place to live.
I'm the kind of person that when I get the feeling or 'vibe' a place isn't for me I just move on damn quick and find the next place to explore. Korat doesn't have that feeling so it's back on the bike and off to the next city. To be fair Korat isn't technically even in 'Isaan' so I don't lose sleep over leaving the place behind in a hurry.
Back On The Road...
Next place on the chart is Khon Kaen, it's nearly 200 kilometers northwards from Korat and I know I'll have to put in for the night there. Jet lag is a funny thing for me, I don't get it until I stop doing what I'm doing. As long as I keep on the move I'm usually alright.
I don't travel with a guide to a place when I get there, it spoils the fun of the adventure. I speak (but can't read) a good amount of thai to be able to find my way about Thailand so on I rode wondering what to expect.
The countryside of Thailand really has to experienced from a bikers point of view. I know car touring is all good but being in the open is better. It's fresh and friendly for the most part and Isaan is no exception. By the time I was half-way to Khon Kaen rice paddy after rice paddy, farm after farm became the typical sight. I began to realize that although the country folks are not the richest in the land it must be a rare time when they ever go hungry. The other thing I like about being out in the countryside is the people are so much friendlier. You might be the high and mighty farang to them and riding a big bike they can never afford, but they'll not resent you for it and give a nice friendly smile and wave! Humbling stuff I can tell you.
I've stopped three times on the way for food and drink but still I'm totally ravenous and ready to hit the sack. I pass through the city center on the main road to the north side of khon Kaen city. I have a better feeling about this place than of Korat, the feel and pace is slower than Korat, more relaxed even.
By the time the main road passes the main bus station I start asking around for a cheap hotel. I'm in luck, they point me in the direction of The Roma Hotel just up the road from it. Outside the hotel I ask a grizzled old farang expat what the place is like.
'Not bad' He chirps in a quirky US accent. 'It's about 250 baht a night and pretty clean!'
Sounds good to me so I book in for a few nights...
First night in Khon Kaen passes without much incident. I find a few bars and a discotheque full of thais to kick back and relax in. I get a lift back to my hotel with this thai girl who has ideas above herself along with big dreams of marrying a farang. I make an move and test the waters on her outside but she doesn't want to stay at the hotel with me. Her brother will get angry (or so she says). It's no problem for me babe see you whenever. So off she rides home, she takes my number before she leaves though.
Following morning I wake up, the jet lag might be gone but I've slept in and half the days been wasted. I grab lunch and decide to make a day of it writing my report and photographing what I can. I've just got back in at one in the afternoon and finalizing my report when there is a knock at my door. It's the thai girl from last night.
With the daylight on her and without the nights illusionary effects she's looks like a regular plain jane. I'm don't hold this against her but something I've learned about thai women especially is that they are very fickle and money minded. A really good test I have is to make out you're not a rich guy. If the girl still likes you for who you are, not what money you have you've got a great girl, otherwise they are just after fleecing you.
This chick is a fleecer, I can tell, she makes it obvious by the way she's looking around the room and my radar is telling me to keep well away. But she doesn't flaunt herself but moodily suggests that we go out for something to eat. I've already eaten so I tell her. Still she wants to go out, adding that she's hungry. I compromise saying I can order some food up from reception. Still she sulks about. Jeez! I'm glad I never slept with this girl! I give her the silent treatment and just pretend to carry on with my report.
She gets the message and leaves, saying she's just going to the shop. It's bullshit but it's a face-saving way of her not loosing face and trying to take mine a bit by suprise when I wonder where she is after 2 hours. 2 hours passes and she doesn't come back, I'm not suprised.
Glad that she's gone for good I hit the nightspots on the thai side of the tracks this time. These are places where no tourist ever goes unless they blunder across them. I know it sounds funny me saying this when I've only been in Khon Kaen for a night and a day but after spending 7 years in Thailand you 'know the score.'
In provincial thai cities you have to know the signs and what to look for if you wanna hang with the thais. You can't just wander in like a tourist either with no command of the lingo and expect to be looked after like a lord either. That's just a plain easy way to get ripped off and fleeced. Seen it happen too many times.
I hit a few of the thai karaoke bars and speakeasy fish-tank bars. Meet some decent enough folk and go home feeling a whole lot better than I did the previous night.
I've not done much exploring south of the northern part of Khon Kaen, But I've managed to get out and about, the night spots are few and far between. Some of the hotels have a half-decent disco but that's about it if you're a tourist looking for the nightlife. In the center of the city there are a few expat bars but I never had time to go an see them.
The TAT guide I perused through lists the sights and landmarks that are in and around Khon Kaen so for the expat with free time on his hands or the roaming traveler they might be worth a look. When I trail blaze again through Khon Kaen I might give them a whirl but right now Udon Thani beckons so farewell Khon Kaen! See you next time!.
Road Lore: If you are planning on hanging out around Khon Kaen I'd advise you to get hold of a motor bike. The city is (like most Thai cities) sprawling and the public transport is slow and pales in comparison.
Back On The Road Again...
Up to now the weathers been pretty kind, by luck and providence the rain has been either when I'm sleeping, at night or while I've been under shelter in restaurants and the like. About a quarter of the way to Udon Thani the heavens open and as soon as it does I kill the speed. I'm right down to below 40 mph and endure the soaking. My waterproofs help but after less than an hour even they give up the fight and I'm soaked to the bone. After what seems like another hour the monsoon cloud passes and all is well. The distance to Udon Thani is less than what it was traveling from Korat and I arrive there without any further mishaps.
Before I'm even in sight of Udon Thani I have a preconception it's going to be a smaller, similar city to Khon Kaen. As soon as I hit the first city limits sign I know I'm wrong on that assumption. Udon Thani is a very large city, larger that Khon Kaen possibly similar in size (but not population) to Chiang Mai. It has the familiar go-fast and reach-high attitude from other thai cities, the buildings tend to be two or three stories higher than Khon Kaen's and it feels like a city on the move. Yet I feel pretty relaxed by it. Maybe it's because it's so deep into the land of Isaan, some would say the heart of Isaan, that it has it's own city style that shouts 'This is Udon Thani and don't you forget it!'
A signature landmark of the city is its massive three-in-a-row roundabout system. In the UK these are evident and to see Thailand adopt a decent system that frees up congestion is a good thing. Development is evident here and I knew even then that It'd be a place I'll be touring around again in the future.
Getting through the mid-day traffic was a breeze and before long I'm in the center of Udon Thani. I had a good stroke of luck finding lodgings close to the bus station when I was back in Khon Kaen so I repeat the tactic and enquire as to hotels and guesthouses nearby. Alas, the first question on nearby guesthouses draws a blank. The bus station where I enquire is crammed full of the taxi and tuk-tuk gangs all aggressive and demanding, not wishing to get bogged down with all the bs I canvass a few shops nearby instead. The forth enquiry I make on nearby hotels is a little more fruitful. I follow the directions find the Chaeron Hotel is a glitzy star rated behemoth, these kind of places aren't my scene. Over-priced, overdone and good for little more than the two-weeker tourist brigade. Nice as a little luxury once in a while but for me it's a last resort. A harsh opinion I know, but when you're on the move from place to place the cosseted and cosy places want you paying hand over fist. This isn't my style for when I'm on the road so I bid adeui to the Chaeron.
I start checking my mirrors to turn the bike around and seek out my own place to sleep when I realize what I thought was rough road conditions was a front tyre puncture. That's all I need, a crippled bike!
I've weathered worse and kept on going but a front tyre puncture is the worst of the two tyres to be holed and taking it to the limit in an unfamiliar city isn't wise.
A back street bike shop was in sight and I limped the wobbling wonder inside for Isaans grease monkeys to weave their magic. I didn't need to say anything, the state of the tyre spoke volumes. My bikes not a standard one though and tyres, while not a rarity, are not commonplace in small bike shops. To their credit they went through the various tyres hanging up eagerly enough. My doubts were confirmed when a sad sounding 'Mai Mii' (no have) was the ultimate answer. I asked him if he could order one and after a bit of ringing around I finally got a resounding 'Dai, Dai!' (Can, Can!). The only hitch was it would be a three to four day wait.
There was nothing for it, I was going to be using longshanks pony (my two legs) and public transport to get around for now. To rub salt in the wounds the tyre was being ordered from Bangkok via Korat! 'Ahh Korat! Perhaps I should of graced your city a while longer.' I mused!
I started to look for the obligatory tuk-tuk and start the whole haggling game for the nearest place to stay when, as if out of nowhere, along came a farang...
The farang was a strange looking dutchman in his late 30s. I'm not exactly 'The Watcher' when it comes to weighing people up but the beer chang vest he was wearing and the absent, slow and deliberate way of speaking made me kind of wary. I asked him about places to stay in the area and he just so happened to know of a guesthouse. I asked how much the nearby behemoth hotel was per night. His definite answer of 1300 baht sounded way over the limit. Time was pressing and I reluctantly agreed so, following him making a phone-call to his friend, off we jumped onto a tuk-tuk.
'What the hell! He might be a helpful con-artist' I grimly mused!
The first odd thing that struck me was that he complimented me on the trainers I was wearing! From what I could make out and gather from him was that he was trying to make his money last for as long as he could before he'd have to return to Holland. The tuk-tuk had passed by the center of Udon Thani by now and I was concerned that the place would be in the middle of nowhere.
"It's not far, not far!" The dutchman, whose name I learn is Rob, assures.
Realizing that not far is a very different concept I shrug my shoulders as the tuk-tuk blasts even further south-west from the city. Eventually we reach the guesthouse. A thai-name-only guesthouse at that. I might be in a city but this is true isaan country.
No-name Guest Resort, Udon Thani
Rob jumps out of the tuk-tuk like a coiled spring and rushes to the counter. 'Here we go, he's gonna want to claim a commission!' I predict. I pay the driver and haul my gear to the counter. I blast off a few words in Thai to the receptionist. The wanna-be farang tout may be an expat, but his thai is dire. The room price is 290 baht, I figure if the dutch tout managed to make a commission it must of been a feeble one. Still he has helped me out by getting me somewhere to stay, albeit 2 miles from the city center. I'm pleased that he's got the room in the middle section of the hotel (where it'll be cooler and away from the main road traffic) but I'm ready to just wind down after a long days riding. Then my little scout-sense picks up when he starts asking for my room number and grabs one of my bags.
Either he's Mr friendly and wants to make new friends out here or he's up to something. I go with the flow we take the lift to my room with him carrying said bag. The room certainly looks very nice with a small balcony, newly built all the mod cons and apart from internet access I'm not unimpressed by the room. Once I've taking it all in I see that the Dutchman is still inside. I know continental folk differ from the scandinavians, Brits and Americans but either he's queer or he's casing the room for a hit while I'm out. This is my first blast through Isaan and I haven't a clue what the vibe is with the local farang either.
I get rid of him diplomatically telling him a bogus phone number to reach me on and assuring him that, yes, I will come and drop by at his amazing friends restaurant later. I'm not going there of course but he doesn't know that.
He asks what I'll be doing now and I tell him I'll be looking at finding a bike to rent.
"I've got a bike!" His sulking attitude suddenly picks up.
"No thanks, I prefer to rent from a thai, that way if I wreck the bike at least it's his and not yours." I tell him straight. Reluctantly he shuffles away, his chance at making easy cash gone.
I wait five minutes and make an excuse about the shower being too weak and the view being better on the rooms upstairs. I've got the room changed to the upper floor within ten minutes and I'm asleep in twenty.
Udon Thani - Getting Mobile Again...
Finding a replacement bike is not going to be easy, but without a guide or relying on Rob the wonder dutchman it's back to using longshanks pony for getting around. After about an hour of making enquiries shop-to-shop I'm back on the road again.
I've got myself a bit of a rough-and-ready blue honda dream. The thai I rented it from is a trickster but friendly enough, he tries a simple mis-pricing scam on the sums and retaining my driving license. Nice try, this might work against the new-guys but you'll need to come up with a better one than that. After a few minutes of going through the rental bs I'm on the road again feeling free as a bird. It's time to see what's going on in the city...
End of Part 1
Watch-Rider's story concludes in Part 2...
Part 1 | Part 2