Pangkalan Hulu, Malaysia. 31st March 2018
There’s a Facebook page dedicated to the new regulations Thailand has introduced relating to bringing in a foreign vehicle. People exchange information about their success or failure at various border crossings. The crossing at Pangkalan Hulu, in Malaysia, had been used successfully recently, so that’s where I made my attempt. I stopped in the town for some food and to kill a bit of time. At 18.30 I headed out into the unknown. I felt a bit like a pioneer, with a bike instead of a covered wagon.
Malaysian customs took a long time to clear me through. I think there was some training going on and my Carnet and bike were the training aid. Then it was through to Thai customs. Holding your breath for a very long time is a real challenge but it felt as though I needed to while I dealt with customs. They also took a long time, possibly another training session going on. In the end they were happy to accept my Carnet, with no mention of the theoretically required permit or guide. I already had insurance, procured on my behalf by an ex-pat named Dave Goodchild, who runs an overlander base near Pattaya. That would be one of my future destinations because, apart from anything else, I owed Dave some money.
Finding a hostel in Betong was easy enough. As usual, there were plenty of cafés around too. I chose one with a big TV on the wall and watched some Premier League football while I ate. After a while another British guy came in and sat down with me. Steve is from Newcastle and is a maths teacher at an international school in Hat Yai. Soon after, his Aussie mate turned up. Steve had ridden over on his recently bought sports bike, his mate had ridden over on dirt roads on his dirt bike. A heavy drinking session ensued, with some great conversation, and I finally made it to bed at around 4am. Needless to say, I decided to stay another day. Some recovery time was needed. A couple of other bikers arrived at the hostel, from Bangkok heading to Penang. One of them spoke good English and he suggested some places I could stay en route. They were riding big tourers, a very expensive hobby in this part of the world.
When you enter another country there’s no way of knowing what the standard of driving will be like. Best to prepare for the worst. Thai drivers seem to be very courteous, despite some examples of ‘Asian Overtaking’. This is my all purpose name to describe some of the seemingly crazy things that some drivers will do. It’s mostly about when a vehicle coming towards me will pull out to overtake even though I’m in their way and therefore have to go over to the hard shoulder. I think the mindset here is that because motorbikes generally use the hard shoulder most of the time, I should be too. It was never a problem but meant full on concentration was needed.
Talking of vehicles, the mainstay of the transportation system here seemed to be small motorcycles with sidecars attached. They carry everything, but they tend to be very slow and often get in the way, especially in towns. When I met up with Dave later, he told me they’re actually illegal in Thailand. That’s very weird because I think if that rule was ever enforced the local economy would simply collapse.
As I headed north two things became very noticeable. The first was the number of vehicle checkpoints, manned by the army. The second was that despite Thailand being a Buddhist country, most of the population in this area is Muslim, with hijabs and mosques everywhere. Sadly, the two are connected. There are ongoing attempts by Islamic State to cause problems between the two countries, with an ultimate intention of setting up a caliphate in the area. Neither of the countries want this to happen but with such a long border, and with a history of smuggling of all types, they have increased security in the area in an effort to stop arms being smuggled across. I was never stopped at any of the checkpoints but it was a sober reminder that IS still remains busy trying to ruin peoples’ lives.
The roads are good in Thailand, with plenty of dual carriageways and a generally high quality of road surface. I really enjoyed a twisty road around some lakes and through some unspoiled countryside, mostly rainforest. The villages looked very similar to any other Asian village, with small shops, workshops and roadside stalls everywhere. The sun was shining and the bike, for a change, ran well all day. That was nice but still doesn’t help me in finding out what’s wrong with it. Next day, in complete contrast, the bike ran like a pig, all day. I might be lucky and get 50kms of smooth running before hell descended once more, and it made no difference whether the tank was full or empty. Flummoxed and frustrated, I limped into the second of the two hotels I’d been recommended and did the only thing that was possible – I slept on it.
My target destination was Koh Tao, one of the small islands in the Gulf of Thailand. It has world renown as a diving centre and Emily, my diving instructor, had recommended I go there and also to use Roctopus dive centre, whom she rated highly. She had worked there in the past. A little bit of research told me where they were based on the island and also that they would give me a lift from the ferry into the nearby town if I called into their port office. Their prices seemed good. There are so many dive centres there that prices tend to be competitive. The ferries out to the island are surprisingly cheap at about £12 return, and I found somewhere to leave my bike by the terminal. The woman who runs the café there also provides parking, for a small fee. Once I’d sorted out the bike I took advantage of the very nice food she served. It was only fried rice with veg and meat, but it tasted really good and set me up for the ninety minute ferry ride. Once we’d docked I found the Roctopus office and, as promised, was given a ride to their dive centre in Sairee Beach. I immediately signed up for two dives the next day, then went off to find a hostel. After trying a few places I found one just near the lane that leads down to where Roctopus is. Nicely convenient.
Start time for the dive was 11am. I did all the paperwork and paid for the two dives, THB1800 (about £42). The staff ask everyone what sizes they are for wetsuits, fins and BCDs, then they sort them out for you. We all then jump into the back of a pick-up and head off down to the ferry port again, where all the local dive boats are moored. There is what could almost be described as an outrage of colourful boats, moored alongside each other, all with rows of air cylinders in the racks along the sides. Some were about to head out, like we were, others seemed to be having a bit of a snooze in the warm sun, waiting for their next call to action. It’s nothing unusual to have to clamber across a couple of other boats before reaching your own, and that needed care and bare feet. Once on board our first task was to assemble our kit, sort out weight belts, and check everything over for safety. The buddy system of diving means that when you put on your kit you and your buddy check each other’s gear to make sure it’s all shipshape and Bristol fashion before you jump in. There were about fifteen people on our boat, all doing slightly different things. Fun dives, try dives, advanced courses or basic PADI. Each group has a dive master or instructor, whose job it is to brief the group on where we’d be going and what we’d be likely to see. Our dive master was Beth, and her Dad was in our group. Meanwhile her Mum was doing her basic PADI course. I was pleased to discover that I’d remembered how to assemble the gear and all the correct safety checks. Well, it was only just over a week since I’d completed the course so I shouldn’t really have had a problem should I.
A little bit about the equipment. In these warm waters we wear ‘shortie’ wetsuits, which means lower legs and arms are exposed. We wear a weight belt, and getting that right is a matter of trial and error. Correct weight helps to maintain neutral buoyancy while under water. The Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) is probably the heart of the kit because it carries the air tank and some of the air hoses. The regulator assembly includes a pipe which is attached to your BCD, so you can inflate it; a tank pressure gauge and depth gauge so you know how much air is left; and two breathing regulators – four pipes in all. Why two regulators? The spare one is for your buddy should they happen to have problems with their own air supply. For this reason you shouldn’t be more than a few metres away from each other. You are their lifeline and they are yours. Fins (not flippers) are best worn with socks of some kind otherwise the plastic will rub on your toes, in quite a painful manner. Ask me how I know! Regular divers usually have neoprene socks or bootees.
I enjoyed both dives very much. The second one went better then the first as I became better at maintaining neutral buoyancy. It was also more interesting with regard to the nature of the coral and the variety of fish we saw. As soon as we got back to the dive centre I booked up for two more dives next day, with a meeting time of 6am. Was I going mad?? But the reality is that it’s a better time for diving as the water is clearer and the dive sites are less busy. I then had most of the afternoon to myself. Having initially planned to stay for three days and six dives, things were going so well that I decided to take advantage of their ten dive special offer, at THB7,000. A huge saving on paying for them two dives at a time. I was really enjoying myself and I wanted to keep going and consolidate all the things I’d been learning. All of the dive masters were very encouraging towards me and gave me some positive and helpful feedback. Having arrived as a real newbie, I left feeling like I’d made really good progress. Over some evening drinks LJ and Phillipa, two of the dive masters,told me they were impressed by the way I’d improved. Practice makes perfect. I’d seen plenty of beautiful coral and a huge variety of different fish.
I was very impressed by the way Roctopus run their operation and the quality of the staff they employ. Everything runs like a well oiled machine and the customers are looked after very well. I sat down with Steve and Dave, two of the bosses, for a beer one afternoon and was more than happy to tell them how good their company was. They started out small but grew the business via the internet. Most other companies rely on touts down at the ferries. They now have around forty staff. On most evenings there’s an informal gathering of staff and customers at one of two bars they regularly frequent, often showing films that have been made during the day’s diving, by a professional film maker. It’s a great way to round off an exciting and challenging day. If you ever go to Koh Tao to dive, I recommend them. https://www.roctopusdive.com/
From Koh Tao it had been my intention to head north towards Bangkok. But I changed my mind and turned south again, but this time on the west coast of the peninsular. I’d been in touch with a Danish guy called Ole. He was riding a BMW GS1200, which he’d flown out to New Zealand. From there he’d had a similar journey to mine, island hopping his way across Aus and SE Asia. We agreed to meet at Patong Beach, on Phuket island. The bike ran well for most of the journey with not a hint of a problem for 230kms. But once I got into Patong Beach it kept on cutting out and at the same time the heavens opened up in an effort to drown everyone and every thing. Eventually I was forced to stop and put in my spare fuel and the cutting out immediately went away. And yet I was nowhere near being empty. What the hell is wrong with this bike? It took me and Google maps a while to find the hostel, but find it I did and was happy to get out of my wet riding gear. I arranged to meet Ole near the beach front. He’d already eaten by then so we chatted about our journeys while I ate. He isn’t really into the off road side of travelling so doesn’t mind having such a big bike. He’s a big fella anyway, so the bike suits him. We arranged to meet next morning to have a look at the bike show that was in town for a few days.
After a coffee we wandered across to the beach side show area. Bike Week is a show that moves around Thailand, stopping at various places for a few days before moving on to the next venue. It was due to open at 1pm but there wasn’t that much happening yet. Many of the stalls and events were still setting up. We walked around, noting the presence of food stalls a bit further along the beach and thinking of later. There was also an area where Cowboys and Indians seemed to have taken up residence. Mock up saloons, teepees, and craft stalls selling leather gear. It looked very out of place and definitely non-Asian. I think they put on shows later on but I’m not sure. We found ourselves a very nice burger to eat then decided to part company and meet up again later on, hoping things may have got going.
Something I’d been trying to do was to find a decent rate for changing up some money. When I was in Hat Yai, on my visa run, I’d discovered that all Thai ATMs charge a fee when drawing out cash with foreign cards. THB220, about £5, seemed a huge penalty to pay just to get some spending cash. Many places in Thailand, including service stations, will take credit cards, so the amount needed was less than in other places, but it still hurt to have to pay. Once back in Malaysia I had a bit of a brainwave. They don’t charge for withdrawals and the exchange rate between Malay and Thai currencies was pretty good, so I decided to draw out lots of Ringgit and exchange them for Bhat once I was in Thailand. It had worked out quite well so far and I was very pleased to find a decent rate at one of the exchanges, so I changed the rest of it. I ‘m sure my little ruse saved me some money in the end.
Ole and I met later and now the show was in full swing, with a rock band playing at full blast and all the stalls up and running. We walked around looking at the bikes, which were mostly road registered and had been brought by their owners to place at the show. There were some nice bikes and I even saw a Harley Davidson that I liked – a very rare beast. One of the dealer stands had the new BMW GS310 on display. At last, a small to medium sized adventure bike. It could be just what I’m looking for. But I rejected it out of hand. Why? Because it weighs in at nearly 170kgs, which is as heavy as BMW’s GS 650. What’s the point in loading up such a small engined bike with so much weight? None at all, is the answer. There’s a real demand out there for sensible adventure style bikes but all manufacturers are wedded to to the idea that they have to have bling, gizmos and endless extras, all of which add weight. And yet my Suzuki DR350 covered over 100,000kms without any needless nonsense attached to it. My CCM is from the same mould. The big bike companies need to wake up.
We indulged ourselves at some of the food stalls before heading back across the road to the bar we’d used at lunchtime. Ole said he’d be freighting his bike back to Denmark once he reached Bangkok although, at time of writing I think he’s still travelling. I got chatting to an Aussie woman and mentioned the oddity of the American Indians at the show. She told me that they actually are Indians in as much as they are indigenous people from the Thai/Myanmar border who pre-date the arrival of the Malays. They tend to be overlooked by the authorities so dress as Native Americans just to make a point. Fascinating. That fact sits at the top of the list of ‘Things I Didn’t Expect to Learn at a Motorcycle Show’. Ole was staying another couple of days, planning to join the parade of riders into town next morning. I needed to head north again as I had a deadline to meet. We’d had some great chats and it was a real pleasure to have met him, with the bike show as a bonus.
I was heading to Pattaya, to Dave Goodchild’s overlander base. He and Lesley, his wife, have been living in Thailand for about sixteen years. They adopted a young Thai girl who was having family difficulties and have brought her up. Although they come back to the UK two or three times a year, they regard Thailand as home and have built a very nice house outside of Pattaya. A few years ago Dave bought an ex-police van, originally used for taking people to court. Dave used his practical skills, of which he has many, to rip out the interior and convert it into a very comfortable camper van. They journeyed around Europe and then across Asia to Thailand. It now rests in Hungary where they have friends. Their travels inspired Dave to set up his overlander base, using a second building next to their house. Their daughter, Natalie, has an apartment there and there’s another apartment and a room that Dave rents out to travellers. People in camper vans can park in the front yard where Dave has installed electrical hook ups. He’s named it Plodd Stop, in honour of his ex-police van motorhome. This is the link to their website. http://www.overlandersthailand.com/
It was a two day journey from Phuket to Pattaya and I’d like to say that they passed without incident. But they didn’t. The bike ran like a pig, interspersed with periods of smoothness. They were only there to lull me into a false sense of security before it all went bad again. On the first day, when I was stopped at a café, I managed to drop my phone and smashed the screen. I carried on, with the bike behaving like a demented kangaroo, and made it to a hotel. A big one, with twenty one floors, but surprisingly cheap. On the second day, more disaster. The bike ran quite well until the end of the day. I was low on fuel but didn’t want to fill up because I was planning to remove the tank and I needed it to be empty. The bike was misfiring badly again so I was limping along the hard shoulder. I have to admit I wasn’t concentrating properly because I was looking at my GPS and trying to nurse the bike along. I looked up again and there, right in front of me, was a pick-up truck, stopped. Where it came from I have no idea, but I had no time to avoid it and rode straight into the back of it. The bike and I promptly fell over. I bruised my thigh and, oddly, my throat too. The back of the pick-up had been bashed in by my front wheel. Once I was on my feet again and had picked up my bike, with a little help from my victims, I checked it over and was pleased to see very little damage. Then I noticed the headlight was broken, as was a small plastic cowl that covered the front tanks. Hmm. Not so good after all. The young driver and I exchanged details, with both of us taking plenty of photos. I really didn’t know what should happen next. Dave told me later that it’s usual for all parties involved to ring their insurance company and wait for an assessor to arrive. Nobody was supposed to move their vehicle until this had happened. The driver was on the phone for a while but didn’t raise any objection when I made moves to head off. I wasn’t far from Plodd Stop at this point and was extremely pleased when I finally reached there.
An overlanding couple were also staying there. John and Lucy are from the NW of England but had bought a Suzuki DR650 in New Zealand and were heading back across Asia towards the UK. Time limits meant they had to keep moving at a faster pace than me. We retirees have the luxury of not needing to be anywhere in particular, visa limitations apart, and I tended to take advantage of that. I met Dave and Lesley and that evening we all went out to a German run restaurant for a nice meal and plenty of chat, although my bruised throat prevented me from saying very much. Discussing my little ‘incident’ with Dave, he thought that maybe the driver of the pick-up may not have had a licence, wondering if that was the reason why nobody came out to officiate. It was two weeks after the crash that I finally got an email from the owner of the pick-up, asking me to ring him. Not wanting to be too hasty, I ignored it and waited to see what might happen. So far, nothing has. If he pursues me then I’ll get my insurance company involved. I’m not trying to avoid my responsibilities, I’m just not rushing into things.
Now I had some real work to do on the bike. Cure the misfiring and replace the broken bits. Dave took me out on his scooter to buy some oil. It took a while but we did find some eventually, of the right specification. We’d taken my bike down to a vehicle wash and left it there, picking it up on the way back. It’s far easier to work on a clean bike than a dirty one, that’s for sure. I got stuck in to stripping down, after I’d drained the oil out. Dave had plenty of tools I could use if needed. In particular he had a jack so I could lift the rear wheel off the ground, necessary for removing the rear suspension unit, which had to come off before I could remove the main fuel tank. Unlike most bikes, where the petrol tank sits between the rider’s knees, many modern adventure style bikes have the tank below the seat in an effort to keep the weight down low and to balance it out between front and rear. My bike also has two extra tanks at the front so as to enable longer range riding. With some help from John I got the rear tank out. A bit of a struggle but essentially straight forward. At the front I removed the cowl around the headlight and discovered that the bracket that supports the front cowl was bent and cracked. Repairable? Possibly. But given that I was going to have to order a new headlight from the UK I decided to get a new bracket too. There was no guarantee that a repair would result in the bracket being the right shape. Reassembly would be difficult enough without having to fight an out of shape mounting bracket as well.
Because of the heat I’d been working in only my swimming trunks and a hat. By the time I’d finished I was definitely feeling it and needed a rest. I helped John to sort out his Garmin GPS, which hadn’t been reading the maps properly. Then I emailed the parts man at the CCM factory with a list of my needs. John then told me he knows this guy as they’re both members of the local Trail Riders Fellowship group. Small world, eh. In an effort to resolve the misfiring problem I’d already ordered a fuel filter from the factory and that was on its way to Plodd Stop, along with some other items, from base camp. I ordered the other parts, paid lots of money for a DHL delivery, and sat back to wait. And wait. And wait. Meanwhile Dave and Lesley left for one of their regular visits back to the UK and to Europe. Their camper van was going to get some usage for a few weeks too. Dave had made sure I had access to whatever equipment I needed and because where I was staying was separate from their house, my staying on wasn’t going to be a problem. Dave had also introduced me to some of his friends, so I could enjoy a bit of social activity.
Chief among these was Glenn, the owner of a bar called The Old Bill. Guess what job he used to do? Dave likes to go there to play pool, I was happy to join him. Glenn is typical of many ex-pats in Thailand. He’s happily settled with a Thai woman and they run the bar between them. In effect, she owns the business. Glenn is there on a retirement visa which means he can’t work. Thailand is very strict on this. Glenn isn’t allowed to get directly involved or handle money. In fact he even pays for his own drinks. I was introduced to several other people in a similar situation. He’s bought a house out there, but in his wife’s name. So what’s to prevent the wife disposing of the property? It seems the deeds include a ‘gambling clause’, which means that Glenn (or whoever) also has his name on the deeds meaning that he has to agree to any sale too. Glenn is quite a character. He started out as a driver on the underground, then a fireman before joining the Bedfordshire police. He also worked undercover for the Metropolitan police. Because he already had a private pilot’s licence, the Met paid for him to get his commercial pilots licence and he spent five hairy years appearing to help various villains with drug runs and such like.
Another character I met in a café was an American called Jimmy. He came from New York and used to be a professional bowler (nine pin), golfer and gambler. He reckoned he learned to play cards with mobsters in New York when he was a kid. He invested a million dollars in a company which went broke, so now he lives on the small amount of social security money he gets from the US, which goes much further in Thailand. He had been married but his wife left him and he let her take the house, car and everything else. Tall tales? Who knows, but fascinating to hear all the same.
The Thai new year was about to take place. The festival is known as Songkran and is a time when everyone gets wet. It lasts several days but the celebrations move one one place to another, generally southwards, it seemed to me. Kids love it because the main activity is to get everyone soaking wet. The tradition relates to the idea of washing away the turmoil and troubles of the previous year, ready for the new one. As you ride or walk by a bunch of kids in a village, they will have a supply of water to hand with which to do their duty – which is to make you wet. There’s no escape. If you’re lucky it’s just a water pistol but far more likely is a bucket full. I was out cycling one day and was drenched by the time I got back. The other problem is that the holiday delayed my parcel too. Natalie eventually collected it for me from the post office.
Like a kid at Christmas, I couldn’t wait to open it and get on with fixing the bike. But just like that same kid, who anticipated getting a bicycle but ended up with roller skates, I was in for a severe disappointment. The fuel filter didn’t match what was on the bike. The photo shows what I mean. An email to the factory elicited the information that the fuel filter that’s attached to the pump isn’t replaceable, it’s an integral part of the pump assembly. I was sure I’d read in the manual that it was a service item, but I was wrong. The filter I’d been sent related to the fuel tank breather system for older models, so was no good to me in any way. What to do now? No choice but to get on with reassembly. On the face of it I went through all the hassle of removing the tank for nothing. Looking on the positive side I’d cleaned the tanks out and also learned a lot more about how the bike goes together. But the waiting continued as I needed the other parts before I could put everything back together and try the bike out.
That was another saga. For reasons unknown, Dave’s address couldn’t be found on the DHL system. I looked up the address of the nearest DHL depot and asked for it to be sent there. It was an incorrect address. Next thing is I’m getting an email about a failed delivery and the parcel is back in Bangkok. Natalie to the rescue once more. She rang them up and arranged for delivery to her although she did make some mention of extra charges. When it turned up next day the extra charges turned out to be for customs duty, plus tax. £110 later I had my hands on all the parts I needed. At last, I could finish my bike.
With all the parts now fitted and everything back together, I was able to start the bike up, only to find that the fuel pipe was leaking just where it went on to the injector. I sorted that out and tried again, only to find the pipe was now leaking down at the other end where it went onto the fuel pump. I could have cried. Instead I swore. Out came the tank again. Fortunately I had some spare fuel pipe, which I fitted on then replaced the tank again. All seemed to be well now, with no leaks. Another friend of Dave’s, John, had been popping in from time to time to check progress. He suggested I ride around the nearby lake as it was a pleasant place to go anyway. So I set off, stopping at a servo to refuel. I’d gone about 12kms when the bike suddenly cut out. Petrol was pouring out of a split in the pipe I’d just fitted on. “When will this end?” was my plaintive cry to the heavens. Fortunately Glenn had given me his phone number and was happy to come out and collect me. He couldn’t take the bike but we took my panniers off it and on the way back we called in to the local helpful handyman who agreed to collect the bike and bring it back to Plodd Stop. He charged THB500, about £12. I was very happy with that. There’s a bike repairers opposite Glenn’s bar who said he’d be able to get some new pipe the next day, of the correct type this time. Why did the plastic one burst? I think it was a combination of the heat from the engine softening it, and the high pressure fuel flow then breaking through the weakened pipe. Obviously it’s no good for fuel injected systems.
Next morning I was faced with a problem. The tank was full of petrol, meaning I couldn’t remove it without draining it. I had no way of doing that. Fortunately I could just about manage to get to the securing clip without needing to. I had also noticed there was a crack in one of the brackets on my luggage rack, so I removed that too. John came round on his scooter again and was kind enough to take me down to the bike shop where the guy welded up my rack then went off to get some pipe. We enjoyed a coffee and a chat while he did so. John is another ex-pat Brit with a Thai wife. He was telling me how hard a language Thai is to learn. The same word can be used for several different things, depending on the inflection. He tried for a while but gave up in the end. He wasn’t the only person to tell me that. We went back to collect the parts, then John took me to Plodd Stop and I got on with fixing. It wasn’t too long before I had a fully functioning bike, with no broken metal and, most importantly, NO LEAKS!
When I sat down and worked it out, I realised I’d been in Pattaya almost three weeks. Before I left I took a ride down to the beach front area, mostly to have a look at the infamous Walking Street. Pattaya is renowned for its sex tourism and Walking Street is where it all happens. It was quite an education. Almost all the bars included the phrase ‘A-Go-Go’ in their title, and there were dozens of them. Their objective being to service men who had cash in their wallets and desire in their trousers. I was down there around midday so none of them were open. Would I have been tempted? No, not in the slightest.
But now, it was definitely time to move on. My initial visa had run out but Dave knew someone who worked at immigration and was able to get an extension for me. I had plenty of time to explore this part of the country before needing to leave. Fixing was finished, time for some culture. How would the bike run? I really didn’t know.