Pattaya, Thailand. 5th March 2019
It was now Early March and I was conscious of the need to sort out my bike, still in Lao. I was also going to need to renew or extend my two month visa. Extending it for thirty days is easy to do but it made more sense to simply get another one while in Laos, and combine that with collecting my bike. It was cheaper to do that too. Dave’s original plan had been for me to get it taken from Luang Prabang to a Laos/Thai border and for him to meet me with a hired pick-up and bring it back to Plodd Stop. I contacted Kai, my helpful rescuer in Laos. He would have been happy to help but unfortunately he was away on tours at the relevant time. A plan B was needed.
Glenn’s Thai partner, Air, is someone who seems to know everyone and is able to get things done. She got on the phone and put the word about as to what was needed. A guy who goes by the moniker of Mr M came to see us and gave us a quote of 20,000 Baht. That was for the whole job – collecting the bike in Luang Prabang and bringing it back to Plodd Stop. He knows a guy who does regular transport runs into Laos so he knows the ropes and the roads. We told him we’d let him know and after a few days we talked again but this time knocked him down to 17,000 Baht. With the price agreed, the game was on! I booked a flight to Vientiane for Monday; planned to get my visa on Tuesday and Wednesday; travel to Luang Prabang on Thursday; collect the bike and head for home on Friday.
Nothing is ever easy is it. The Thai visa centre in Vientiane conspired to unmake my day. When I went there last November all I had to do was arrive in the morning, complete the forms, join the long queue, hand in my paperwork, then collect my passport next afternoon. The problem that’s arisen is that Vientiane is such a popular place for visa runs that the Thai’s have introduced an appointment system to control numbers. I can’t really blame them but the problem was that when I went online to register with them, and book an appointment, I thought there must be a problem with the booking system because there wasn’t one for more than a week after I intended to go. That was too late for me so I flew there hoping to find a solution on the spot. When I tried to book again, once I’d arrived, the next one was now almost two weeks away. Hmm.
I was thinking that maybe the fixers who hang around outside these places had block booked the appointments so as to be able to sell them. So I walked down there on Tuesday morning to find that I was wrong. One of the fixers showed me an appointment letter for someone he was acting for, and it had a website reference number and a passport number on it. Just for once, when you hoped it wasn’t, everything seemed to be kosher and above board. I knew that I’d be able to get a visa at the border but that’s only for thirty days and can only be renewed once. Well, it was the only option there was so I got on with killing time in Vientiane, something that is not a hardship at all.
Rather than fly I decided to get the bus to Luang Prabang on the Thursday. Far cheaper of course, but twelve hours on the road. Quite a few stops, including one for our ‘free’ lunch, a nice noodle soup. I finally arrived at Tanoy guesthouse at 20.00.
In the morning Mr M and his driver, Mr Yu, came round. The plan was that Mr M would leave me in the hands of Mr Yu while he got a bus back to Thailand. He really only came over to make sure that all arrangements were in place. He then went to the bus station and Mr Yu came back at 09.15 to collect me. I went to jump in the passenger seat but he had his wife and baby in there. I sat in the back. Kai had given me the location of the police station but it was the wrong one. Gulp! Fortunately they knew what we wanted and directed us to the right place. My bike and all my luggage had been safely stored away. Willing hands helped load it onto the pick-up and it was securely tied down, with the luggage stuffed in around it. Then I went to the office to negotiate the ‘storage fee’. Kai had warned me to expect 10,000 Laos Kip (LAK) per day, and that was what he asked for to cover the sixty days it had been there. I negotiated it down to 500,000 LAK, about £45. I climbed in the back of the truck, made myself comfortable on a padded rafia mat that Mr Yu obviously used for sleeping on, and we set off.
After a couple of stops for food etc., we reached the border at 17.20. Everything went smoothly, which is what I expected really. The Thai authorities didn’t seem too bothered that my bike was on the back of a truck. They issued the normal paperwork and stamped my carnet without batting an eyelid. They gave me a thirty day visa too.
Soon after the border we met Mr M at a bus station. He checked that everything was OK. We had a bit of a conflab and decided to hit the road and drive to Pattaya overnight. We’d crossed the border right up in the north of Thailand so it was about 800kms south. Mr M went off and Mr Yu drove to his house to freshen up and have some food, ready for the long drive. I had some food too and was entertained by his family while I waited, despite the lack of a common language. After a while we set off, his wife and baby still riding shotgun.
There’s not much to say about a journey like that. I dozed on and off in the back. We stopped a few times, for essentials and for Mr Yu to have a nap. And at 8am we arrived back at Plodd Stop. Fortunately there were some travellers staying there so we had enough muscle to unload the bike. I paid off Mr Yu and he left, presumably to get some sleep before heading north. He’d done a fantastic job and I was delighted to have my bike back under my control. Dave and Lesley were due to fly back to the UK in a couple of days so I was also pleased to have got the bike back before they left. I went to bed for a while, satisfied with a job well done.
While Dave was in the UK it was my role to welcome and sort out any travellers that came by. Dave has become a bit of a guru in a couple of ways. Firstly he’s become the fount of knowledge for border crossings into and out of Thailand for Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia. Problems arose in June 2016 when Thailand introduced regulations which decreed that visitors entering with their own vehicles had to obtain a permit from the Department of Land Transport and to have an officially approved guide. It became apparent that the customs officers at various borders couldn’t be bothered to enforce these regulations. The DLT wasn’t really their concern. A Facebook page had been set up to guide people towards those borders.
Secondly, Dave was able to obtain Thai insurance for people and email it to them. They would visit Plodd Stop to pay him and to stay a night or two. Dave started to gather in knowledge of which borders bothered to enforce these regulations and which didn’t. He would then pass on this knowledge via the Facebook page. He also had his own experience to call on, having travelled across these borders himself. Because of his residency there he had made himself known to customs officials who would usually be happy to answer queries for him. It’s nice to see that customs officials at virtually all borders now ignore these regulations, making travellers’ lives much easier.
While I was there I welcomed various people, in/on various vehicles. It was good for my social life too. I also helped them with repairs. For example, Dave told me to expect an English couple who had a damaged exhaust on their Toyota Landcruiser. He told me where to take it for repair. We went down there and the exhaust shop had the part on the shelf. It was a simple ‘cut and shut’ welding job, costing about £38. Stuart and Jenny were delighted, Plodd Stop’s reputation was enhanced.
I also welcomed a German guy named Tino on his Honda CB500 twin. He’d travelled extensively during the previous five years, on this simple but reliable road bike. He had an electrical problem and all the shops he’d called at told him they didn’t know about electrics and couldn’t help. He’d booked it in to a shop in Bangkok and was very worried about what they might find wrong, and the consequent cost.
The problem? The engine wouldn’t crank over when it was hot unless he pulled in the clutch lever. I said to him that not only did I did know about electrics and was very happy to work on them but I knew exactly what the problem was. I pulled the wire off the neutral light switch, earthed it out and the bike started perfectly. The switch was faulty but only failed when the engine was hot. It needed a new switch, which we didn’t have, but he was happy to carry on now he knew the fault was a simple one and wasn’t going to get any worse. No more need to go to expensive repair shops in Bangkok, and Plodd Stop’s reputation further enhanced.
I was delighted to have been able to help him because Tino had also taken ten attempts to get into Vietnam and gave me lots of encouragement to keep trying. I felt the favour was now returned. Travellers helping travellers is a great thing and being part of that helped me feel a little less useless than a man with a broken arm usually would.
Now I had my bike back I could see what repairs were needed. Considering how badly I was hurt, the bike had got off very lightly. It needed a new headlight, a bodywork panel and a few other minor parts. Dave had gone back to the UK for a couple of months so I was able to get everything I needed sent to his address and he would bring them back to Thailand for me. A bigger problem was the huge dent in the rim of my back wheel, and a smaller one in the front. Glenn and I took them down to a local bike shop where the owner assured us he could get them repaired. He did, although it took three weeks to do it. But no matter. I wasn’t in any kind of rush to go anywhere after all.
I had a hospital appointment at the beginning of April where the surgeon recommended physiotherapy. The repair was now strong enough to start putting some strain on it and I needed to increase the range of movement at the joint. So I approached Bangkok Hospital in Pattaya, where I saw the doctor in charge of the rehabilitation department. She recommended daily visits, for ultrasound, heat treatment and stretching exercises. I said I could only manage to come every second day because I had to rely on getting a lift there. Thanks to Glenn, from the Old Bill Bar, I managed to achieve that. He was a sterling friend during that month, never failing to get me there, and back, for each visit. At the next consultation with the surgeon he said to stop the physio because, while he was impressed with the degree of movement I now had, he said it won’t bring any more. He reckoned he would need to remove one of the plates to increase it. He also wanted to either remove or put screws into the top piece of bone. The x-ray explains. But the operation wouldn’t be for about three months.
My next appointment would be in six weeks, when he felt he might have a better idea of the next steps. He wanted me to try and strengthen my arm as the muscles had atrophied quite a lot. I developed a programme of bi-cep and tri-cep exercises to torture myself with. In actual fact, as I was told at a later appointment, the surgeon merely wanted me to use the arm normally, as much as possible. He told me off, pointing out that lifting more than 2kgs might damage the repair work, so to stop exercising. I was a bit put out by this because I felt I needed to improve strength so I could ride my bike. But I did as I was told.
As the months rolled by I settled into enjoying the social life on offer. This mostly centred around playing pool. The Old Bill Bar played in two leagues, on Wednesday and Thursday. I was made welcome, despite not being very good. Dave was a member of the team. In fact he has a table on the roof top patio at Plodd Stop. We’d often order in some food and spend the evening at the pool table, with Lesley looking on. By the time I left I was getting quite good at the game.
Most of the bars in this area are ‘owned’ by immigrant Europeans or Aussies. More accurately, they’re owned by their Thai wife/partner as foreigners aren’t allowed to own businesses in Thailand. This might sound very risky but there’s always a legal entity who holds a small share in the business. It’s known as a gambling clause, which tells you something about Thai culture. The same goes for owning land. A farang (foreigner) can own a property but has to set up a company, which will own the land on which it’s built. The government is very keen that Thais benefit from western immigration, which means things like decorating your own property is frowned on. Thais should be doing that work.
One day, while Glenn and I were on the way back from my physio session, I saw a scooter rental shop, advertising scooters at 1,500 baht per month. This was a very good price and with the improvements in the movement of my elbow I decided to raise my recovery up to the next level. Fifteen minutes later I rode away on a Honda Click, a nice, easy to ride 125cc twist-and-go scooter. At this point I hadn’t ridden for three months and I was very nervous. Obviously I went very steadily but it wasn’t long before my confidence was restored. Riding made my left forearm ache, but I saw that as part of the rehabilitation process. Independence meant that Glenn no longer had to run me around. I could go shopping, or get to the Sunday lunch cafés that my friends frequented. It was great to be back on two wheels.
Visiting the surgeon entailed a two hour bus ride to Bangkok on the airport bus, followed by a short journey on the airport train. At the next visit he said he didn’t think another operation would be needed now. The movement had increased to the extent that there would be little, or no, improvement. I was pleased to hear this because, apart from the obvious benefits of not having another operation, I would have had to pay for it myself, at around £4,500. At the time of the accident my travel insurance company had made it clear they expected me to return to the UK for further treatment so would not pay for continued treatment in Thailand, including physio.
My elbow continued to be quite painful at times, and uncomfortable while sleeping. All I could do was to stick with it. I could have taken painkillers but chose not to. It eased off very gradually, although I wasn’t able to pick up much weight. I also found that using it too much brought the pain on. Fortunately playing pool and drinking beer didn’t seem to have much adverse effect. Probably because I’m right handed.
When Dave and Leslie returned from the UK they brought with them the parts I needed to get the bike back on the road. There was a bit of work to do on the clutch but mostly it was a case of replacing the damaged parts. Before long I had a rideable bike. All I could do for a few weeks was to sit and look at it. But eventually I realised that I had to bite the bullet and go for a ride on it.
My big doubt was whether I could hold the bike up when stationary, particularly were I to overbalance to the left. Would my forearm be strong enough to operate the clutch in traffic? My first ride was only about 10kms but it all felt good. Over the next few weeks I went increasingly further distances, covering about 320kms one day. That is about two thirds of what I might cover on a full riding day, so it was a good test. And I felt perfectly fine at the end of it. I went down to Ban Phé a few times as well, a town down on the coast, with cheap hotels and a very nice beach. I had a couple of friends who were living there so I joined them for a change of scenery and some fun and frolics in the bars they knew. Good riding practice as well.
I made my last visit to the surgeon, and came back with some good news. Firstly, he confirmed there would be no point in another operation. But he had already told me to expect severe arthritis in the joint as time went on. The loss of so much cartilage pretty much guaranteed it. So I was very pleased when he told me I would be a good candidate for a replacement elbow joint at some time in the future. I’d planned to ask him about that. Having read up on the subject, I’d worked out that this operation would be likely to give me a stronger elbow, with more movement. He also said the damaged bone was knitting together well. He wanted to see me again in three months time. I was happy to tell him that I’d be too busy riding my bike somewhere.
When I reflect on my time with this injury I realise that I had expectations of recovery that were very unrealistic. The bones really do need time to knit back together before strain can be put on them, especially now that I’m older. It became obvious that the joint had no real strength. It seemed strange to me how much my forearm muscles had weakened. But mostly I had to learn to do what the surgeon told me to do (or not do). Truly, I was a very impatient patient.
Dave and Lesley were due to go back to the UK at the beginning of October. As their thoughts turned to flying back, mine turned to moving on. Having got the bike sorted out, and knowing that my elbow could cope with riding, my state of mind slowly changed, from seeing myself as part of the resident immigrant community, to thinking like a traveller again. This change was important. I’d been there so long that I’d lost my focus on what I was meant to be doing. That was a good thing in many ways. There would be no point in trying to be a traveller when I knew I wouldn’t be able to travel for many months. It made more sense to act and feel settled for a while. But there was always a tension between the two states of mind. At first the thought of riding again made me very nervous. Could I still ride? Could I still function out there on my own? Above all, did I still want to do it after enjoying this comfortable life? Several things helped me to swing round, such as getting the parts to fix the bike. Actually doing the work, some of it challenging, put me back in contact with the riding I’d already done and therefore the riding I’d be doing soon. Taking some rides out on the bike helped greatly. Feeling my confidence returning, helped by using my little run around scooter on a daily basis. Even having to think about visas and bike paperwork, pain in the neck though they are, helped my change of mental state.
The imminent departure of Dave and Lesley helped very much too. I wouldn’t have the wrench of leaving behind such good friends. They would have already left me. They’d been a key part of my recovery, by making sure I was comfortable and by involving me in their life. Dave had encouraged me to help him with managing visitors to Plodd Stop, with me acting on his behalf when they were back in the UK earlier. I’ll be eternally grateful for that.
Dave and Lesley departed. I focused on preparations and a final round of social visits with the friends I’d made. The eight and a half months spent there had given me much pleasure. I’d learned a huge amount about how immigrant communities in this part of the world operate and a huge amount about Thai people. But it had always been a pause in my journey, albeit a long one. The bike was ready. I was ready. It was time to go.