Sunday, May 20, 2012

I'm Not Dead, So We're going to Surat Thani.

I had to get out of there. I don't like being sick and am definitely not good at it. I had pretty much decided that no matter what, if I wasn't dead, we were going to move on to Surat Thani the next morning. But my body decided that it hated me and added yet another new symptom overnight- nausea accompanied by vomiting. Undeterred by this new development, I went out and got cereal and yogurt, had dry heaves (yay.) when I returned, ate, felt better. Colin was unconvinced by my pronouncement that I was fine, but I told him there was no way I could spend another day in bed, we had to go.

So we finished packing, loaded the bikes, and took off for Surat Thani. As par for the course, a gentle rain began to fall as we left. It rained, on and off, for most of the day. I actually did feel pretty decent for most of the morning, but toward lunchtime, my nausea returned. Colin spotted a roadside bbq chicken stand, and we pulled over. Hoping that putting something in my stomach would settle it, I nibbled on a chicken leg and ate a few balls of sticky rice before handing the remainder over to Colin to finish. Once we were back on the road and I'd had a few minutes to digest the food offering, I did actually feel better. 

We continued on our ride, and the rain continued to fall intermittently. In one of the sunny breaks between the raindrops, we stopped to refuel the bikes. After filling the tanks, I sat down next to my bike (feeling a sudden and urgent need to nap), while Colin adjusted his clutch in an attempt to reduce the slipping (unfortunately, the recent oil change didn't fix it). I still had the 14mm wrench in my daypack from my brake adjustment in Koh Lanta, so I didn't even have to get off the bike to adjust it. Extremely bad move. Sitting in the seat, I leaned my head over, put the wrench on the nut that locks the clutch adjuster, and gave it a turn. It seemed stubborn, so I pushed a little harder. And then I felt the unmistakeable feel of bolt threads collapsing. Somehow, from my vantage point in the seat, I was not loosening the bolt, I was tightening it. I got off the bike, attempted to loosen the lock nut this time, and to my dismay, the nut simply rotated in place. To make matters worse, there was now oil dribbling out from around the clutch adjustment bolt. The clutch adjustment bolt sticks out through the engine side cover and passes through an oil seal on the way. Between the lock nut and the engine side cover, is a washer. Apparently, if this washer is not held tightly to the side cover, the oil seal doesn't really seal. Now that the lock nut was stripped and loose, oil was dribbling out. Oh no. We broke out the tools, and after much fiddling, were able to get the lock nut off the clutch adjustment bolt. I had hoped to have only stripped the nut, but unfortunately, the threads in both the nut and the bolt were crushed. There were a few good threads left on the bolt near the oil seal (they had been protected by the washer), and so we looked around on the bike for another nut that could maybe work on the bolt. We couldn't find another suitable nut, so I gingerly threaded the stripped nut back onto the bolt and hoped that it would catch on the remaining threads. It did, and so I tightened it as much as I dared. It seemed to be holding the adjuster, and so I reached up and thumbed the started button, only to watch oil come pouring past the nut. Huh (that's not actually what I said, over, and over, and over). We were in the middle of the countryside, with no real place to get parts or help, so we needed to fix this now. I explained what was going on to Re, and she said, why don't we just use some Gorilla Tape? I think she meant to use the sticky side against the engine case (that was what I meant), which might hold the oil in momentarily, but not for long. But it was still a good idea, which I changed a little bit. We took a small piece of Gorilla Tape, folded it over, sticky side to sticky side, and then cut a tiny hole in the center. We slipped it over the clutch adjuster bolt, carefully pressed it against the oil seal and engine side cover, and then threaded the nut on top. Basically, the double layer of Gorilla Tape was taking the place of the washer. We adjusted the clutch and then carefully tightened the nut as much as we dared, crossed our fingers, and I reached up and thumbed the starter. Yay! No oil ran out this time

For the remaining 60 mile ride to Surat Thani, every five miles, I rode up next to Colin's bike to inspect it for leaks. It was a pleasant surprise to us both that the tape held for the entire journey! But the break in the rain did not. As we neared the city of Surat Thani, somebody pulled the rain lever again. It poured. When it turned into a veritable deluge, we decided to seek shelter and pulled off the road under an overpass for half an hour, during which time, the rain didn't even stutter. Since it was getting late, and riding in the rain and the dark while searching for a hotel in a city for which you don't have a map is even less fun, we forged on. We did manage to find the hotel we were looking for after another 45 minutes of riding (no it's not the only place in town, and we did stop at others along the way, but as soon as I would reach the reception desk, they all said, “full,” so we kept looking). 

When we arrived and the woman at the counter said they had rooms, even though the rate was 100 baht more than the online rate, I was delighted. Cold and soaking wet (the reception lady actually had to get a towel to soak up the puddle under my arm as I completed the registration form) feeling like crap again, but delighted. While Colin unloaded the bikes, I carried our helmets and daypacks to the room and got out of my riding suit. I was chilled and thought a nice, hot shower would help, but first, I had to stop to worship the porcelain god and make an offering of dry heaves. Once showered, warmed, and dried, I climbed under the covers and went to sleep. Since I really didn't feel like eating anything, and it was now dinnertime, Colin walked out to the market and found some pork and noodle soup for himself, and returned with soda water and crackers for me (he is such a sweetheart!). Then, since I thought I might like a Gatorade, he went back out and brought me two of the Thai version of Gatorade (much sweeter and more syrupy) as well. The crackers and soda were sitting well, so I drank one of the fauxtorades. It sat well, and I felt much better. Except that now, my palms and soles of my feet were tender and itchy (could this really get any worse?). Doing my best to ignore them, I brushed my teeth, got back under the covers, and went to sleep for the night.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Thaisland Part II, Phuket (You Give Me Fever)

floating fishing village on the way to Phuket
The next stop on our island tour was Phuket, which is the largest of the Thai islands and accessible by bridge from the mainland. A peek out the window this morning revealed that the sky was still overcast and a bit threatening, so we decided to push on to Phuket Town today.  When we pulled out, we were happy to see that the sky had begun to clear. Today's ride was very much like yesterday's, scenery wise, with jungle covered hills and the occasional exposed limestone face. The bad news is that my clutch is slipping more frequently. Come on, oil change. 

A very happy Colin w/ his fired grums and crispy pork
As we passed Phang-Nga, the sky grew rapidly darker, the humidity increased, and inevitably, it began to rain. The rain quickly gathered strength to become a pretty steady downpour. The rain continued on and off, all the way to the bridge to the island of Phuket. Once we crossed the bridge, the sky became a mixture of dark clouds and patches of blue. We made our way down the island, following the signs and the GPS to Phuket Town and found the Nanachart Mansion (which is not in the GPS or on our map) after only a minor wrong turn. We stayed here the last time, and the price is still the same, the woman behind the desk is the same, and they still don't want you to bring durian into the Nanachart according to the signs on the walls (durian is a much-beloved fruit in southeast Asia which smells more like rotting onions and farts to me. We've tried it, didn't care for it, but have pledged to try it again to be fair. Just not in the Nanachart). The hotel is nothing fancy, but they have secure parking, they've added wifi, and it has the big advantage of being just two blocks from the hole in the wall restaurant serving the best “fired grums and crispy pork” (sauteed morning glory greens and delicious fried pork is how it translates) in this world. That we really came all the way to Phuket just to eat the grums and pork is a telling (sad, but telling) statement to their taste. We pulled the bikes into the parking area and carried our bags upstairs to settle in for a couple of days. That done, we headed out to grab a quick bowl of noodle soup for lunch (followed by a Blizzard- yay- Thailand is also DQ country), and then returned to the room to make use of the wifi for a while, having been without internet for a week. When dinnertime rolled around, and basically, we were counting the minutes until it did, guess what we had? Fired grums and crispy pork, tofu with minced pork, and rice. Ooooh, it was as good as we remembered.

Phuket coast from a scenic overlook
There really isn't a whole lot to do in Phuket Town itself – it's the original city on the island and does have many charming old shophouses similar to the ones we love in Georgetown, but it has good availability of services and is a convenient base from which to explore more of the island. When we were in Thailand two years ago, we spent just a couple of days in Phuket to visit our friend, Bernie, whom we met in Georgetown, Penang. The most popular of its beaches (and the ickiest) is Patong, a showcase of everything that could possibly be wrong in an island paradise. Endless rows of fast food chains, bars, lounges, discos, clubs, t-shirt stands, massage parlors, hotels, condos, you name it, you have at least 183 choices in each category. Seemingly millions of tourists, all lined up on their beach chaises, with mere inches between them. And the majority of them are leathery, old Europeans, wearing what we've learned are called, “budgie smugglers,” (aka Speedos), or thongs and bare breasts so tanned (in texture as well as color), that Colin describes them as looking like two Coach bags laid out on the women's torsos. This is definitely not what we were looking for. We did want to try to cross paths with Bernie, and he hangs out near Patong, so we figured we'd end up there briefly this time. The island of Phuket is huge, however, and from what we read, has many much more beautiful and less populated beaches. On our first full day there, we decided to ride around the island and find some of them.

Small island off Phuket
When we left the Nanachart, the sky was a mixed bag of bright blue and rainclouds, depending on the direction we looked. Since we are getting awfully close to the start of the rainy season, it's not surprising, and being optimists, we decided to head out, toward the blue. We followed the road along the southeast of the island, stopping to look at the large port area, before riding around the southern tip and up the west coast. We rode past many pretty beaches, through some fairly scenic green, very hilly areas (Colin and his clutch did not enjoy the steep inclines. He still hopes that an oil change will help), and pulling off at several places to mark them in the GPS so we could find them again. As we continued north, the sky just got darker. We had reached ugly Patong Beach and looked in the area we knew Bernie to prefer, but didn't find him. Bernie is a creature of habit, and his habit has been to be at a certain spot in the water after lunch. We didn't get a reply to our email, so we decided to try to catch him by chance. When we got back to the bikes, the first drops began to fall, so instead of following our original plan to ride even farther north, we decided to cross the island back to Phuket Town. About five minutes after we started riding, the rain gods switched from their sprinklers to their buckets. It rained, and rained until we arrived at the Nanachart. 

After changing out of our drenched clothes, I took our grubby laundry to a real, mechanical laundromat (a row of six washing machines under a large awning on the backside of a building). It was worth 20 baht (66 cents) to let a machine scrub it for a change. As a side note, it is possible to have laundry done for you anywhere in the world, and many places, it's pretty cheap (usually between 1 and 2 USD per kg).  In a lot of the laundries, someone washes everything by hand, in a bucket, in a river, lake, swale, wherever there is fresh-ish water. If it's going to get hand washed, I'll do it myself in the sink, or in a bucket if there's one around, and hang it on the clothesline we brought with us. I left our things sloshing in the machine for 45 minutes and returned to the room, not feeling very well. I napped until it was time to pick up the laundry and felt a little better after sleeping, but still was achy.

That night, I hardly slept. Every part of me hurt, from my bones to my skin, my joints felt as though the cartilage had been ground off to leave the bone rubbing on bone, and no matter how I tried to roll, I couldn't find a comfortable position.

When I got up in the morning, I threw on my clothes and walked down the street to the 7Eleven for cereal and yogurt and a big bottle of water, still feeling really achy, but otherwise okay. But as I stood at the counter, waiting to pay, I suddenly felt clammy, and unable to keep my eyes open. Standing there, waiting for change, I just needed to rest my head for a moment. The next thing I knew, one of the cashiers was rubbing my shoulder, and I had my arms around the water bottle with my head propped on top of it. I had passed out on the counter at the 7Eleven. Nice. Recognizing this as a symptom of being “not well,” I walked back to the room, dropped the bag, and more or less, collapsed back into bed while relating what just happened to Colin. Since I felt faint, clammy, warm, and achy, he suspected I had a fever and offered to get the thermometer from our first aid kit. I declined, and went to sleep, spending the rest of the day in bed with Colin playing nursemaid and running out to find paracetamol and drinks for me. Later in the afternoon, since I still felt like hell, he got the thermometer, and sure enough, I had a fever of about 102. He did an online search of my symptoms and the most likely diagnosis was some sort of flu or generalized viral infection. Further down the list of possibilities were cat scratch fever and dengue fever. No matter what it was, I hurt and didn't feel up to leaving the room, so Colin continued in his role of errand boy and brought me a chicken sandwich for dinner. That night, I slept poorly again because of the pain, but my fever did seem to drop overnight. I felt much improved the following morning, and after eating the roti with chicken curry that Colin brought back for breakfast, I felt good enough to get out of the room. I suggested riding to one of the other, nicer beaches, since sitting in the sand with a book in hand sounded far more appealing than spending another day in bed. After convincing him that yes, I really did feel better, and promising to let him know immediately if my status changed, we geared up and hit the road. We decided to go to Banana Beach, which appeared positively idyllic in the online pics. Unfortunately, the photos were not representative of what we found when we got there. The beach was strewn with trash, including a multitude of fluorescent tubes covered in barnacles that had washed up, and the surface of the water was also littered with debris. We didn't stick around. Disappointed, we decided to try for one of the beaches we saw on our “beach scoping” ride, but about halfway there, I began to feel poorly again. So we turned around instead to go back to the hotel. The sky had turned a dark gray, at this point, and seemed much lower than on our outbound trip. We almost made it back before the rain started falling in earnest and rode the last mile in the pouring rain. After changing into dry clothes, we walked round the corner to get a bowl of noodle soup for lunch (since it had stopped raining already). I then slept the rest of the afternoon away. My fever was back, but only about two degrees higher than normal. I woke up in time for dinner, and we returned for some more fired grums and crispy pork and a bowl of tom yam soup with prawns. Then I went back to sleep.

What the hell was this?!? I couldn't sleep again overnight because of the deep aches, which popping paracetamol in the middle of the night barely touched. My temperature was still around 100, and now my elbows itched. I became acquainted with the heartbreak of psoriasis, only at the elbows, in the year before we left on this trip. It hasn't flared up in several months (I think a good dose of sunshine really does help), but I now had the familiar, urgent and insane need to scratch my itchy elbows, but nowhere else, and with no other symptoms. In any case, my level of itching and aching wasn't enough to keep me in bed (I make a really bad patient) and we had things to do.

We needed to do some bike maintenance, so after breakfast, we changed the oil in both engines, put in new sparkplugs, and adjusted Colin's clutch, hopefully, solving its issues before our next ride. We had wanted to leave today for Surat Thani, but between my wavering healthiness and the rain that starting pouring from the sky shortly after we finished working on the bikes, staying put for one more day made better sense. After cleaning up, we walked around the corner to a different local restaurant that always seems to be full when we pass by. And we found out why. Phuket was also a stop along the old trade route plied by ships between China and points westward, and so there was, and still is, a Chinese presence on the island. In addition to the architecture and culture, they also brought (more importantly to us) food. What this restaurant served was a version of the Hainanese chicken and rice and pork and rice that we enjoy so much in Malaysia. We ordered the combination plate that included chicken, roast pork, and crispy pork on rice, with their local versions of the dipping sauces. While different from what we've had before, they were a delicious variation on some of our favorite foods. While whatever Re has hasn't seemed to dampen her appetite much, it has dampened her spirits. She is certainly frustrated with feeling this badly, and reluctantly returned to the room since she wasn't feeling well enough to do anything else today. She is still popping paracetamol and has begun to get progressively itchier. We spent the afternoon working on some more writing and reading and planning our escape to the islands in the Gulf. We were both getting a little stir-crazy by dinnertime, so we walked out for dinner around 7:00 pm. I offered to pick up dinner and bring it back to the room, but Re is really tired of the same four walls. Neither of us had a strong opinion about where to go for dinner, so we ended up at McDonald's. There are plenty of other food options in Phuket Town, but I think a taste of home (no matter how greasy) was attractive to us both, and the fact that the Dairy Queen was next door didn't hurt either. After another Blizzard, we went back to the room for the night.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


The river in Krabi Town
After five days in Koh Lanta, we decided it was time to move on. The morning we left, Colin loaded the bikes while I walked into town to pick up breakfast. On my return stroll, as I looked down at the ground to avoid stepping off the pavement/into a hole/on something gross, a snake slithered across my path and into the grass on the side of the road. I paused to say hello (yes, I know it's odd to give pleasantries to animals, but I do) and admire its beautiful coloration – it had a red head and bluish body and was maybe 24 inches long, before continuing on my way. 

 We ate our breakfast (yogurt and cereal from the 7Eleven again) and then walked over to the Hutyee Bungalows to say goodbye to Mr Hutyee and give Turbo Dave one last cuddle before we geared up and rode away. We took the two ferries back to the mainland and rode north toward Krabi Town. 

Sculpture on the riverfront in Krabi
The scenery in this part of the country is absolutely gorgeous, with limestone karsts covered in lush greenery rising out of the ground in every direction. It was a short trip to Krabi, and we arrived sometime around noon. Since our guidebook doesn't say much about the town, besides the fact that it's a jumping off point for some of the islands off the coast, we decided to ride through and have a look around. If it seemed nice, we'd stay, if not, we'd continue on to Phuket. After riding on the main street, we decided to stay. We found a room for the night and went for a walk along the riverfront, stopping to eat lunch from the local market on the way. After enjoying our sticky rice, and fried chicken on the riverfront promenade, we decided to do the mangrove walk we'd seen signs for on the way into town. 

a tiny very blue crab in the mangroves
A glance at the sky showed that it was getting awfully dark in the direction we were headed. And I neglected to put our rain jackets in my daypack before we left the room. Never liking to backtrack, and feeling optimistic about the weather, we forged onward to the mangroves. The raised walkway wound through the mangrove trees, past muddy flats with tiny crabs in multiple and unbelievable colors (see pictures). We'd spent maybe 20 to 30 minutes on the walk when we heard rumbles of thunder, saw lightning flashed, and noticed that the sky through the trees had gotten even darker. At that, we decided we'd seen enough and turned around to hopefully miss the big rain that now seemed imminent. As we exited the trees and walked hurriedly to the road, the rain began to fall. About ten minutes into our trot back to the room, the sky opened and dumped buckets. We kept walking, staying under the business awnings when we could, until we could go no further without making a mad dash through the streets. After waiting for about a half an hour for the rain to taper off, we gave up and made a run for it, arriving at our hotel completely soaked. 

a red-headed krait
Since it was still raining, we spent some time on the internet, catching up on the news of the last week. And looking up the pretty snake I saw on Koh Lanta that morning. I think it may very well have been a red-headed krait. Their range includes southern Thailand, they're beautiful, shy, and extremely poisonous. Hmmm. Glad I didn't try to pick it up! When dinnertime rolled around, the rain had basically stopped, so we walked down to the now even bigger market. The array of choices was close to overwhelming, but we selected several noodle dishes, some grilled squid on skewers, a salad, and some fried sausages in wrappers. Yum.

Thaisland I: Koh Lanta

We spent five days on the island of Koh Lanta (it's on the west coast of southern Thailand, accessed by two short ferry hops from the mainland to the Koh Lanta Noi, then another ferry to Koh Lanta Yai). Since we were going to be there over Songkran, which is the Thai New Year, and we had no idea how busy it might be, we actually did something we rarely do: we made a reservation. We had a bungalow, at the Nautilus “Resort,” about 200 feet from the beach, with a porch, big windows, a fan, and an outdoor bathroom (taking a shower in the open air, in a rainstorm, is a strange experience, let me tell you), and no internet access. It was comfortable and clean, and very quiet. A couple of nights, we were the only staying guests (obviously, we worried needlessly about reservations). We spent most of our days catching up on some reading, some thinking, and looking for seashells on the beach. Oh, but not all was idyllic.

Our first evening, we decided to ride our bikes to find some dinner. On the dirt road out of our bungalows, Colin hit a bump, and afterward, his bike started making a noise like there was something rubbing inside the chain case. We pulled off the side of the paved road, under a street lamp, to find the source of the noise. Damn it, it was the stupid bolts that hold the stupid sprocket to the stupid hub...AGAIN. Two of them were loose. Since it was getting dark, and neither of us felt like dealing with it there on the side of the road, we limped back to the bungalow, stopping at a small roadside restaurant for some noodles for dinner on the way, and vowed to work on the bike tomorrow.

So that's what we did the next morning. We unrolled the tarp and got to work repairing my rear hub. We went through the now too familiar process of removing the rear wheel and rear hub. A quick inspection showed that two of the bolts had backed off by several threads, one was starting to loosen, leaving only one still snugly fastened. We once again, put it back together with Loctite and as much torque as I could put on it. I received an email from an experience mechanic who suggested that our problem now was probably due to the threading being overstretched, and that replacing the bolts and nuts is next step. Both Re and I seem to be infected with a bit of forgetfulness, since I got the rear wheel completely installed without reinstalling the chain (doh!) and Re reattached the brake rod without the spring (double doh!). We should be able to do this in our sleep by now. We eventually did get it all put back together, with all the parts seemingly in place. 

With that job finished, we hit the water for a quick dip and then settled ourselves in one of the berugas (a raised bamboo platform with a thatched roof) to read. Later that afternoon, as Colin and I hunted shells, two local men ran onto the beach, waving their arms at us and the one other person on the beach, and told us we needed to get off the beach. Curious, we asked why? Because. (okay, not just because). They had just received news of a strong earthquake off the coast of Indonesia, and the news was accompanied by a tsunami warning, which certainly made it sound like a good time to get off the beach. As we stepped from the beach onto the lawn, we watched as the managers and their daughter loaded their suitcases (and their pet rabbit) and then themselves into a car and drove away. So much for getting more info about the situation. Wondering what we needed to do and where to go, we returned to the bungalow and packed our essentials (documents, money, keys) and had them ready at the door to go if we needed to leave in a hurry. Everything else, we hung up as high as we could inside the bungalow, and then we went back to have a seat in one of the berugas that overlooked the water at the edge of the lawn. 

Turbo Dave
As we sat there, Mr Hutyee, who owns the Hutyee Boat Bungalows (in the forest behind the beach where we were staying), strolled over and sat down with us in the beruga and said that he was on this very beach when the Boxing Day tsunami hit in 2004. He told us how the water receded quickly by between a half and one kilometer, leaving all sorts of fish out of water (he said many people were out on the sand picking up the fish). Between 20 and 30 minutes after the water receded, he saw a tall, black wall of water moving toward the shore, and it rushed in and flooded the land. The wave of water hit the beach and covered the ground where the bungalows sat with about two feet of water. He told us that if we saw the water recede rapidly, it would probably be a good time to hightail it out of there and get to higher ground. Good to know! Fortunately, there is plenty of easily reached, higher ground on Koh Lanta. So we sat in the beruga with our new buddy, Turbo Dave (a resident, wide-open, maybe 8-week old kitten) and waited for something to happen. And we waited some more. And...some more. 

When the sun finally started to set and the tide hadn't really gone much farther in either direction, we figured it was safe to eat. We rode up to the main street to look for some dinner, only to find that the majority of businesses were shuttered. We did find one restaurant open and jumping (lack of competition will do that) and enjoyed the first of many delicious meals at a place called Jumrat.

As we sat on our porch drinking coffee the following morning, we watched as the Nautilus's managers, who had returned sometime during the night, shuffled, very slowly, toward us. When they reached the lawn directly in front of us, the husband said that they had looked for us the day before, to let us know about the tsunami warning. When Colin told them that we were on the beach just in front of the bungalows, and that I had seen them loading up to leave, they both looked shocked and rather appalled. They sheepishly apologized for not finding us the previous afternoon and stood there, as if waiting for the judge to announce their sentences. Neither of us was upset about the situation - we had the information we needed to make a decision, and we were as prepared as we could be. Uncomfortable with the situation, we told them about what we saw and experienced while we waited and related Mr Hutyee's story to them also. They looked even more surprised that we hadn't evacuated when we heard about the tsunami warning and said as much. We explained that we aren't very bright. We told them of times we've gone to the beach in North Carolina during hurricanes and snuck into the water while the beaches were closed. They looked even more confused, and after spending some more time silently looking at the ground and each other, they left. Very strange. Our biggest concern of the morning was that Turbo Dave, the little kitten, was nowhere to be seen. Hopefully he's okay, but we missed seeing him at breakfast.

That afternoon, we decided to ride all the way around the island to check out the scenery and see some of the other beaches. Koh Lanta is quite beautiful and very hilly, with one road that runs nearly all the way around the perimeter and several other roads crossing the middle. The roads really climb and wind around the hills on the island.

 After we'd ridden about halfway round (between 15 and 20 miles), Colin pulled off the road and said his rear brake seemed to be dragging. He checked it, made an adjustment, and we rode on. A few miles and several uphill climbs later, he pulled off again and said the brake was still misbehaving. This time, he parked it under a cashew tree (I took a couple of pictures. It's interesting how they grow. There's an edible fruit resembling a red or yellow pepper, and the cashew nut grows from the base of the fruit), we got out the tools, spread the tarp, and took the rear brake apart. Then we put it back together. Nothing amiss, we were totally confused as to why it was dragging, and what we did differently that now allowed it to turn freely. Anyway, it worked, he could accelerate up the hills again, so we continued around the island and back to our bungalow.

The following day was Songkran, the Thai New Year. Traditionally, people clean their homes one day. The next day, they pay respect to their elders and monks by pouring water on their right shoulders and putting some kind of white powder on their faces. They also wash the Buddha images with scented water. I imagine at some point in history, it was a reverential holiday. But not today. Now, it involves Super Soakers and large buckets of cold water being thrown at any and everyone. We decided in the middle of the day to ride out in hopes of finding some festivities. As soon as we pulled out onto the main road, we came upon scooters whose passengers acted as tail gunners with outlandishly huge squirt guns. These were fun to dodge and weave, and we only got a little wet. The real menace on the roads are the pickup trucks. These trucks ride around with several people in the bed crowded around a 55 gallon drum full of water and usually ice. The people in the bed use large bowls to scoop out the water on whoever they happen to pass. We managed to avoid most of these icy dousings, but Re did get splashed directly one time. One motorbike ahead of us that had two large farang on it decided to overtake one of these trucks on an uphill stretch of road, and it was not pretty. The rider and passenger each shared four to five large bowls full of what appeared to be very cold water as they slowly passed the truck. We, on the other hand, waited for a downhill section and were able to nip by, while the water throwers were still celebrating the previous dousing. Then we got wet in earnest, as the rain clouds decided to take part in the festivities. We pulled over to the side of the road and put on our rain jackets for the wet ride back to the bungalow. It seemed funny that the rain would put a damper on the water celebration, but most of the revelers seemed to disappear when the rain began. 

Colin and Turbo Dave
Back at the bungalow, we were a little chilly, so we decided to walk up to the 7Eleven for some hot coffee. The shortcut by foot to the main road cuts through Mr Hutyee's (our friend from the tsunami watching party) bungalows. As we were passing by one of his bungalows, we spotted Turbo on the porch! Except that it wasn't Turbo, unless somebody had cut off his tail in the past day. Re then spied another small kitten that looked sort of like Turbo but wasn't him either, and then, snoozing on the porch, was the real deal. It was Turbo. While we were petting all three of them, Mr Hutyee appeared and asked where we were going. We told him we were heading up for coffee, and he insisted that we join him, his son, and his grandson for coffee. A short while later, some of the guests staying at the Hutyee Boat bungalows showed up, wet and cold from Songkran, and joined us all for coffee. It turns out that Turbo and his siblings were the kittens of one of Mr Hutyee's cats, but that recently, the daughter of our Swedish hosts had absconded with Turbo. A couple days ago, the residents of the bungalow where the other kittens lived, spotted Turbo on their way to the beach and brought him back home. As it should be, since he looked too young to leave his mother. We spent the rest of the afternoon and into the evening talking with the other Hutyee guests. In some ways, I wish we'd stayed at Hutyee. Mr Hutyee was infinitely more personable and welcoming than the Swedish couple running the Nautilus, and there was always a crowd of interesting and energetic people staying there. The only negative was the swarms of mosquitoes among the trees (and I'm sure, in the bungalows as well).

Sunday, May 6, 2012

If I Had A Boat

What the...?
As I gazed out at the waters between the mainland and the island of Koh Lanta Noi and sniffed the sea breeze, Colin said, “Get the camera get the camera get the camera, now now now hurry hurry hurry!” Of what do we so desperately need photographic evidence, I wondered. I scrambled to dig the camera out of my bag, turning as I handed it to him to see what exactly was the source of such urgency, and saw another ferryboat going in the opposite direction. In amongst the cars and motorbikes on the ferry, was a truck. With an elephant in the bed. I, of course, immediately started singing the song, "If I Had a Boat" (If I had a boat, I'd go out on the ocean. If I had a pony (substituting elephant) I'd ride him on my boat. We could all together, go out on the ocean, me upon my pony (elephant) on my boat) by my man, Lyle Lovett. The world is full of wonders.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Georgetown, Again. Then on to Trang.

One cannot stay in Georgetown for one night. Since we didn't actually have to be anywhere, we stayed in G-town for two more days. For our typical breakfast in Georgetown, I walked around the corner to Yasmeen for roti and coffee. My new boyfriend, Mohammad, the roti man, was so very happy to see me return, that he gave me a big hug and kissed me on both cheeks. He asked where I had been and said that he cried each morning when I didn't appear. I told him we'd be here for another couple of days anyway, which seemed to make him happy, and I would see him again in the morning. Colin laughed when I told him about Mohammad over our roti and coffee.  

After breakfast, we headed out to a motorcycle shop to find new spark plugs and a spare front tube. We stopped in at the Star Lodge on our way back to see if they had a room available, and sure enough, they did, so we carried our gear back down the block to our home away from home. After changing rooms, Re decided she wanted to try a sponge she bought in Nilai that appeared to be a type of “magic eraser” sponge. While the metal cleans up pretty well on our bikes, the white plastic leg shields and side covers are stained, and no amount of scrubbing with a rag seems to make any difference. After wiping the plastic off with a wet rag, Re went over the white bits with the new sponge. I am a true believer. If someone needs a testimonial for the “Super Sunday Sponge,” I will happily provide one. With just a little water and even less elbow grease, the sponge is a wonder on stained plastic and paint. It removed virtually every scuff and scrape on the leg shields, from around the ignition, the side covers, it even took off most of the sunburnt adhesive from the shipping label that was stuck to my headlight surround. My bike is much purtier now!

The rest of the day and most of the next, we spent doing errands and some planning for our time in Thailand, figuring out which of the islands have vehicle ferries. Oh, and eating. On our way to dinner the next evening, Colin noticed a familiar pair of Royal Enfields parked on Lebuh Chulia. We crossed the street, and sitting in the bar area of their guesthouse were Will and Toby! When we found them, they were chatting with a German couple who have just completed their one year motorcycle and scooter journey from Germany to Malaysia. We didn't get their names since they had to leave shortly after we arrived, but he rode a 650 Honda of some sort, and she rode a 300cc step-through scooter of some sort. Tomorrow morning, they take their bikes to the port to send them by ship back to Europe. It was too bad that we didn't get to talk to them more, because it sounds like they had quite an adventure as well. Will and Toby had just arrived in Georgetown that afternoon after spending two days at Batu Ferringhi with friends from Australia. 

They both remarked on how great the food was, saying they'd enjoyed lunch... and a second lunch. The one thing they hadn't found yet was a place for dim sum. Strangely enough, we knew just the place, and since we were on our way there, they joined us, along with two young European women they'd just met, who were also looking for someplace good for dinner. Celine was from France, had been traveling for several months already, and was very quiet. XXXXXX, was a very friendly and engaging Belgian woman. I have no earthly idea what her name was. Each of us asked numerous times, and what she said sounded like, Hyuurngh. Colin described it as sounding like something moaned during sex. I'm sure it had at least one umlaut somewhere in it. The six of us traipsed down to the dim sum place, which was jumping busy. We gathered enough stools for everyone, ordered a pot of tea, and since the restaurant was too full for the dim sum carts to come to us, Colin and Toby went to the carts and picked out a bunch of goodies to try. Everything was delicious, as usual, and we all ate until we were full. With about five pots of tea and flaky, custardy, egg tarts for everyone for dessert, dinner for all six of us came to 50 ringgit even (16 USD). 

Since the night was still young, and the conversations were still flowing, Colin and I led the way to the “corner bar.” We did forewarn them about the rodent and scroungy dog sideshows and the all-around interesting ambiance of the place before we got there. We had told Will and Toby about the corner bar before they invited the girls along to dinner, but we weren't really sure that they would want to go. We decided to leave it up to them, so I described it as best I could, including the rats occasionally scurrying along the sidewalks. I think they were lured by the promise of cheap beer and didn't really believe us about the rats, so they opted to come along. We found a table and some chairs and spent the rest of the night talking about travel and many other subjects. One of us finally noticed that it was 1:00 am, and since we are supposed to be riding 200 miles and crossing into Thailand tomorrow, Re and I decided to call it a night. It was a great evening. Hopefully tomorrow morning isn't too ugly. 
Actually, the next morning wasn't at all ugly. We got up, I walked to Yasmeen to get breakfast and say farewell to Mohammad (he took it well. I told him we would be back in several weeks, and he shook my hand goodbye. I'm glad he didn't cry). We got cleaned up, loaded the bikes, and were on the ferry to the mainland by 10:00am. The ride to the border was fast and uneventful, and the actual border crossing was quick and easy as well (I think we finally have the process nailed down pretty solidly). Once across the border, we stopped at McDonald's for lunch in air-conditioned comfort, before continuing for the city of Trang. The ride was easy, the roads were smooth, and the weather was warm. 

We arrived in Trang in the early evening and found our way into the city center and to the Koh Teng Hotel, aka the 5 Star Backpacker Hotel. The pickings amongst cheap lodgings are slim in Trang, and we stayed at the 5 Star Backpacker for one night when we passed through Trang on our last trip to Thailand. It was shabby, dingy, and cheap then, and we figured we could live with it for one night. When we stayed last time, we got a room with one bed. Not a double, just one, single bed. And one towel. I asked if we could have a second towel, and the man said, “No. One bed, one towel.” End of story. Ohhhkaaay... . Fully prepared to share a towel again, I inquired about the rates and checked out a couple of the rooms. What a surprise- it's not shabby or dingy anymore. They've painted the halls, the rooms, and have new linens. It is bright and cheerful now. We splurged on a room with two beds (so we'd each get our own pillow and towel), and after we set our crap down in the room, we rounded the corner to the night market for dinner. Replete with the diverse wonders of many night markets, we walked back and forth between the stands trying to narrow our choices. After deciding on some fried chicken pieces, grilled pork skewers, sticky rice, some variety salads, and tea, we sat on a planter next to the street and settled in to chow down. Since we weren't stuffed quite to the gills, we maneuvered back through the stands to find something sweet, choosing a very thick, fresh pancake filled with coconut jam and fresh, shredded coconut. Heavenly.

Rain, Tea, and Great Company

One of the few pics of us together. Gunung Brinchang
The following morning was bright and sunny, and after we'd packed the bikes, we headed around the corner to the morning market for a breakfast of vegetarian curry mee (wheat noodles, bean sprouts, tofu, and sometimes chicken-not in the veg version, in a thick, spicy coconut based curry soup) and some very strong, thick coffee. We then walked back to the Peking Hotel and said goodbye til next time. Back on the road, we now made our way to the Cameron Highlands. The first leg of the trip was via the E1 highway, boring, but smooth and fast. A couple of hours into the ride, near Ipoh, we turned off the highway and onto a twisty road through the Titiwangsa Mountain range. The scenery was lovely: lush and green, with limestone mountains and wild orchids growing along the roadside (I have to keep reminding myself that all exotic houseplants are weeds somewhere in the world). The riding was a lot more fun that the flat slab, highway run. As we neared the town of Tana Ratah, we passed acres and acres of strawberry fields, huge greenhouses, tea plantations, and lots and lots of produce stands (approximately 80% of Malaysia's produce is grown in the region). It is a beautiful area.

Danny, Elizabeth, Colin, and Ronnie!
We rode into town and found a place to stay. Once we unloaded the bikes, Colin sent a message to a fellow ADVrider, named Ronnie, who lives in Ipoh and said he would meet us in Tana Ratah once we arrived. I was sitting at a table in the garden of our guesthouse, when someone said my name. I looked up and met Ronnie! Colin came out, and the three of us talked a bit before we showed him our bikes. Ronnie asked if we wanted to get some lunch, and of course, we did, so we set off toward the main street, meeting up with Ronnie's parents, Danny and Elizabeth, (who were visiting from Havelock, North Carolina- tell me it's not a small world) on the way. The five of us went to a small place that Ronnie recommended and had a great meal and fine conversations. Ronnie is currently working on an e-book travel guide for motorcycling in Malaysia, and he was curious about why more Americans don't come here to ride. Aside from the need for Carnet and the relative difficulty and expense of obtaining it, we don't know. It is a modern, developed country with great roads, excellent food, good sightseeing opportunities, cheap gasoline, and very friendly people. After lunch, we said our goodbyes for now and made plans to meet again sometime soon in Ipoh. We had a really nice time.

Will and Toby and their Enfields
Later in the afternoon, Colin and I walked around town a bit, getting the lay of the land and some ideas for dinner locations (it's always about the food, you know). As we were getting ready to cross the street, we noticed a pair of Royal Enfields (a classic motorcycle, first British-made, now manufactured in India) on the opposite side, just about to pull away from the curb. We trotted across the street, me yelling and flailing my arms in the air for them to stop. Here is where we met Will and Toby, a couple of guys just at the very beginning of their trip from Melbourne, Australia, to London by bike. They had just arrived in town and were looking for someplace to stay. We shared what we knew about accommodations and agreed to meet up for dinner.

After walking around for a while, we returned to the Twin Pines and found the Enfields parked out front. Will is riding a newer, Indian-made 500cc Enfield, while Toby is riding a 1960s 350cc. They bought the bikes in Australia and did a bunch of work to them in preparation for their trip. Their route is planned to be almost entirely overland (Burma being the exception) and is timed to make it over the highest passes through India and Pakistan, before heading into the 'Stans and beyond. It is certainly an ambitious trip, made more ambitious by their choice of mounts, so keep an eye on The Bullet Diaries to see if they make it. After chatting around the bikes, we all went out to dinner at a local Indian joint, where we introduced them to the joys of banana leaf meals. We sat around and talked over some beers for most of the evening before calling it a night.

In the morning, on our way out to find some breakfast, we found Toby and Will drinking coffee. We stopped to chat for a while before continuing on on way. As we ambled up the street, we spied our favorite breakfast of roti canai and curry. We stopped for this and coffee before heading back to the room. When we returned, we found Will and Toby hard at work on their bikes. Toby's bike needed a new oil seal around the transmission input shaft, and Will had discovered that the backing plate on his rear brake was warped, and consequently, allowed the brake shoes to twist. Fortunately, they have a comprehensive toolkit and a selection of spares. In a stroke of luck for them, a local man, with a friend who is an Enfield enthusiast, saw them ride into town yesterday. I guess he called his friend, who drove from the next town over just to see their bikes and meet them. Will and Toby said the man had quite a collection of parts and hopefully, the ones the needed. We left them to their work and went for a ride to Gunung Brinchang (the highest peak in the area) and the Mossy Forest.

View at the top of Gunung Brinchang
The road to Gunung Brinchang was narrow, extremely steep, twisty, and potholed. As we (very) slowly wound up the mountain, we admired the stunning scenery of the area's tea plantations. The last three miles were so steep that we found ourselves in first gear for about two of the three miles, and in a couple of spots, we almost needed an even lower gear. At first, the top of the mountain seemed a little disappointing, since all you could see were trees and cell phone towers. Once off the bikes, we saw what looked like a fire lookout tower. When we reached the base of the tower, we could see that it was open to climb. We scaled the four flights of narrow, steep, metal steps to the top. (No US-type protect you from your dumbass self safety precautions here. If you want to take your life in your hands, have at it. We're not gonna stop you.) The view from here was spectacular, out one side we could see the mountains covered in clouds, whereas on the other side were miles of tea plantations. We were soon joined on the tower by a German couple who were touring Malaysia in a rented car. They saw our bikes, and they (or really, he) wanted to know about our trip. We chatted with them for nearly an hour before climbing back down the tower, posing for a few pictures, and heading back down the hill.

Tea "bonsai"
We never did find the mossy forest, but on our way back down the mountain, we turned off at the signs for the Boh Tea Plantation to have a look around. We parked the bikes and walked the path through the tea plants to the visitors' center. It was interesting to see the plants up close- it's a shrub, and after what must be years of pruning, has a trunk like a bonsai tree. The plants were only about two feet tall, but many of the trunks were as big around as my calves (which more closely resemble good, solid, tree trunks than bird legs). In the visitors' center we watched a short film about tea production, toured the displays of machinery, and walked through the tea processing plant. The plantation has a beautiful tea room that is cantilevered out over the fields, so we stopped for a cuppa and some shortbread. While we were enjoying our snack, it began to rain gently. We decided to head back to the bikes and tried to beat the rain back to Tana Ratah. No such luck. Shortly after we pulled out of the parking lot, it began raining in earnest. At the entrance to the plantation, we found a covered parking spot and pulled our bikes in to wait for the rain to stop. The sky grew increasingly dark and the thunder rolled through the hills. After 30 minutes or so, the rain lightened enough that we decided to make another attempt at getting home. We still had another three miles of twisty, narrow road through the plantation before we made it back to the main road, but unfortunately, it began to rain even harder just before the junction. As we pulled onto the main road, the sky really let loose, so we nipped across the intersection and pulled under the awning of a closed business near a bus stand. We waited on the bikes for a good 20 minutes for the rain to slacken, but to no avail. I thought about using my time and the abundant supply of free water wisely and getting out a rag to wash the bikes, but it would have required opening the topcase and getting the contents soaked. Since the water level around us and the bikes continued to rise, we moved to a bench in the bus stand to wait. Eventually, the rain tapered off, and we decided to make the run back to Tana Ratah. We made it back to our room, dripping wet, and showered to warm up. Needless to say, we didn't do any hiking that afternoon.

Rain. Oh, and more rain.
It rained hard overnight and was still raining when the alarm went off in the morning. Since it didn't sound like it was going to be a good morning for an early hike, Colin shut off the alarm and we went back to sleep. When we did finally roll out of bed, the rain had stopped, so we got dressed and went out to get some roti for breakfast. Will and Toby were packing up to leave for Penang, so we wished them good luck and a dry ride, and said we'd maybe see them again somewhere. Over breakfast, Colin and I discussed our own options. Since the forecast was for rain over the next several days in the Cameron Highlands, and hiking in the wet is only so much fun, we decided that instead of hanging out here, we would go back to Thailand for some (hopefully) quality beach time on an island somewhere.

Our normal first stop in Thailand has been the city of Hat Yai. It's a relatively easy trip from the border and has decent accommodations for an overnight stay, but just a week earlier, a large car bomb went off in the underground parking garage of a hotel only two blocks from where we always stay, killing several and injuring hundreds of people. Because we couldn't easily make it from the Cameron Highlands to anywhere north of Hat Yai, we decided to stop in Georgetown overnight to hopefully be able to make it as far as Trang (which is north of Hat Yai and out of the area of unrest) in a day. The ride back through the mountains was gorgeous- the sun had appeared, the sky was blue, the road was dry and without much traffic. We made it back up the highway and across the bridge to Penang by the middle of the day and pulled onto the sidewalk at the Star Lodge. But they were full. What?!? No room? Robert called their sister hotel, the 75 Backpacker, for us, to see if they had a room. They did, so we carried our gear down the block to the 75 for the night. It's not as nice as the Star, but it was clean and had very cold A/C.

Somewhere along the way between the Cameron Highlands and Georgetown, the funnel that hangs from my helmet lock broke. We use the funnel on a nearly daily basis to refuel the bikes, so we need to replace it ASAP. We walked to Mydin, which is Malaysia's version of Big Lots, and sure enough, found a new funnel for about 17 cents. We also picked up some detergent while we were there before stopping at a hawker stall for banana-Milo (like Nestle Quik) milkshakes. Good and good for you! Since dim sum is becoming our new favorite dinner, later that evening, we returned to our usual place for another fantastic meal. Since the dim sum place is halfway to the mall, we continued to McDonald's for an ice cream cone before calling it a night.