THAILAND N: Riding stunning twisty paradise.

Click on images to enlarge them.

Google Earth rough SE-Asia route to-from Bangkok
Click to enlarge. Real itinerary below.

Our North Thailand 2,000 km, four-week approximate itinerary
on Google Maps [map link.]

Bangkok –> Sukothai –> Chiang Mai –> Doi Inthanon –>
Navasoung –> Mae Hong Son –> Soppong –> Pai –>
Chiang Mai –> Doi Ang Khang –> Mae Salong –> Doi Tung –>
Mae Sai –> Sop Ruak –> Chiang Khong (border crossing to Laos).


SLIDE SHOW of our Thailand, Laos & Cambodia pix, with music,
by fine artist Bill Anderson [slide show link].


Hard worker from airport who took Black Bike's crate apart.


Regional economy, history & culture: Putting it in regional perspective first – we traveled the area for two and a half months, North Thailand –> Laos –> Cambodia –> South Thailand –> Vietnam (by air); then riding south to Malaysia.

The 'Indochina' [summary link] regional history is long, complex, with enormous direct influence over centuries by China, India, France, Britain, Japan, USA.

France was the major colonial power since the 17th century; Ho Chi Minh formed a rebel army in 1946 to kick out the French and go the commie dictatorship route, successfully so; which in turn led to the USA trying to fight creeping Communism, with painfully failed results that still linger. The Vietnam War influenced all our lives directly or indirectly, a huge chapter of modern history, the results still unfolding in the largely-Communist region.

Myanmar/Burma, a military dictatorship is far to the right, evidently highly ineffective, with little world trade, stuck in the isolationist dark ages – see chart below.

Thailand is a 'constitutional monarchy' [link] albeit one with unresolved and currently-evolving issues we won't get into here; Laos and Vietnam being among the last of the world's Communist one-party states, Cambodia having switched to democracy a decade ago.

What a difference. Although Communist, Laos and Vietnam have controlled capitalism somewhat on the China model. Westerners do various amounts of business in all three neighbors, "Made In _____" labels are on many of the things we buy, especially clothes but also some electronics. The creeping capitalism may work out long term; meanwhile they are far behind.
The CIA Factbook [link] summarizes the current Thailand situation: A military coup in September 2006 ousted then Prime Minister Thaksin Chinnawat ... May 2008 street demonstrations against the new government, led to occupying the prime minister's office in August ... The PAD occupied Bangkok's international airports briefly, ending protests in December 2008 following a court ruling that dissolved the ruling PPP and two other coalition parties ... Since January 2004, thousands have been killed as separatists in Thailand's southern ethnic Malay-Muslim provinces increased the violence associated with their cause....
Investment has fallen as a result of this uncertainty, with real growth falling from 6% to 5% in recent years, far from horrid.

Whatever unfolds in Thailand politics, it is decades ahead of its neighbors in terms of wealth, productivity and infrastructure, with generally pro-investment policies. There is also an evident substantial cultural difference in terms of work ethic.

This is not all to the good, but is mostly so, at least to our Western eyes. That said, we liked the slower and more traditional pace in other countries versus more go-go quite modern Siam (re-named as Thailand in 1939.)

Bottom line: GDP per capita (PPP) in Thailand is 200%-650% ahead of its immediate neighbors [source link]. In actual US$ (nominal) terms, it is 300%-1,400% ahead on a per capita basis.

Click to enlarge 2008 regional comparison.

Corruption and Freedom [link] as on the home page of this blog: Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam also lose to Thailand; the economics link to corruption-freedom is not by coincidence. It's a loose correlation worldwide.

Corrupt cops encountered in Thailand: Twice, nickel-dime stuff but straight cop extortion/bribery, no candy-coating.

Once I did an apparently illegal U-turn in a land where bikes driving the wrong way on one-ways is de rigueur etc ... but I was stopped by a corner cop, a threat to take us in was a thinly disguised bribe request, so I pulled out the equivalent of $10, he said 'put it in the seat of the bike' which I did, he put his ticket book over it, he picked it up and off we went.

Second time, I tossed a cigarette butt into the gutter to grab a taxi, a cop stopped me, picked up the butt, took me to a corner cop stand, I was shown some rule that the littering fine is 2,000-10,000 baht ($65-$300) by a second cop. I refused to pay the $65 he wrote down, I said 'arrest me, let's go to the Station.' He was friendly, started to write a quasi-ticket on a loose sheet of paper, the ticket indicated 500 baht ($15) fine, so I smiled, gave him his bribe in his pocket and off I went.

Small money, but street-level cop bribery; as usual, tip of iceberg. The alternative is to bribe even more money higher up the ladder, or risk a face-off and a wasted day. How the game is locally played in many countries of the world – and in my lifetime some parts of USA and Canada (Québec especially) 'twas also thus; however don't even think of it in North America today!

How to figure out where to drive in Thailand & Laos: Do what we did, a very lucky find for us; contact Australian ex-pat David Unkovich at Golden Triangle Rider, aka GT-Rider [link]. Get his maps, do not hesitate, get them well in advance for planning.

He has the best maps of the entire region, the only good maps in fact, created them himself by riding every road on his bike with a GPS, printed them, had them plastic-coated for durability – and has sold perhaps 80,000 copies; a great entrepreneurial idea and service to travelers, by a cool guy who just loves ridin' and has spent the last few decades here.

Don't bother trying to phone him, he's usually riding and got way too many calls from strangers passin' through and wanting to pick his brains. Rather, just order his maps and read his web site, drop him an email when ordering.

We ended up meeting him a couple times en route, really enjoy his company. His maps became our main guide.


Weather/seasons: We got to Thailand from Hanoi by air (Vietnam #1 blog) on June 30 2009. It's the low season, i.e. summer monsoons, which turns out to be a great time to visit, even on a bike. It's hot, but far from insufferable, seldom over 35˚C = 95˚F. The rains do not last long and are refreshing.

How to ride in the monsoon rains: Get wet, deeply soaked. Forget on-off with the rain gear a few times a day, its easier to just get wet. It usually doesn't last long, maybe 10-30 minutes before the sun's back and you dry out quickly. In this climate, the cool shower feels great.

We wash our clothes in the hotel sink daily, they need it. By morning they are dry.

Our heavy riding jackets/pants are bulky luggage here. Way too warm, but we are carrying them, mainly for use in Australia, New Zealand, USA/Canada ahead.

Jeans, shorts and short-sleeve cotton shirt is the way to go in consistent heat: Yes, these flimsy clothes are more dangerous in the event of a serious spill, painful road rash would result. But the comfort, and great care, outweigh the danger to us. If one can arrange to have a well-ventilated mesh riding jacket/pants, all the better, but we do not have either. However we wear real riding boots, both for grip and safety, plus engine heat gets at the ankles otherwise.

A monsoon season bonus is the hotels are empty, as are the roads, and tourists are largely absent. We're lovin it.


Travels: Bangkok, 10 days. After a long hard day of flight with Black Bike from Hanoi; getting it through the excellent but few-hours Thai customs stuff; getting Bike un-crated – finally in the early evening, in the dark and rain ... we ride again, our first ride in a month! Felt soooo good.

It finally happened: My first in-motion bike drop of the trip. Hotel-hunting near the Bangkok airport, a gas station where we asked directions had an invisible oil slick on the smooth wet concrete – suddenly the bike went from under us and skidded 20 feet. Like on ice. Broken right highway peg (got it welded next day); damaged ego; Thao stayed on the bike; driver landed on his butt, bruised my leg slightly; the gas station people laughed because that's what Thai do to avoid stressful embarrassment.

But we found a hotel with a $3 cab leading the way, slept off the major fatigue, and Black Bike had no scratches. All's well ... except my ego still suffers a month later.

Looking for hotel in Bangkok.
Chanced upon these huge statues, about $2000.

Next day we found the very good Chinatown Hotel [link] [Prajak Jiansakul is the very helpful Manager, cell: 086-616-2339]; we strongly recommend you get room #601, a reasonably priced suite. As the name implies it's in the midst of the biggest Chinese community in Thailand, not overly touristy, modern and medium-luxe, $30 with good brekkie, bike parking right inside the hotel rear lobby (!) with a guard, internet ... in short it's paradise. Indeed they kindly allowed us to leave Black Bike there safely for three weeks when we went back to Vietnam.

Good thing it's a comfy hotel, cuz Wheezy was in bed with a nasty flu for a week, probably a case of the famed HEFBBSS – Hanoi Exhaustion From Bad BS Syndrome. See Vietnam blog #1.

Thao explored Bangkok largely on her own – it's a happening, fun, busy town. Abundant wats; countless food stalls and fancy restos to try out; Chinese food is awesome in variety and yum; good modern infrastructure; major high end malls and young Thai hip designer stuff; the Sky Train is excellent; good bazaars.

Also evidently abundant sex clubs and shows which we missed due to the flu, but we'll be back ... Speaking of which, lots of transexuals on the streets, some of them look like hot chicks ... and if you are white and look like you have money, there's no problem finding, er, love.

Click to zoom on the unbelievable million-fish swarm at the harbor.
They are fed by visitors but not harvested for some reason.
These are however for sale, just outside the harbor.
Not sure what they are, some sort of sea worm/leech, but not for us.
Food stalls on the street, little carts with propane burners, are the best. Indeed here's a boast: The best-ever fried chicken, ever-ever in our lives (!), ditto their fried pork, was at a little food cart, fried on the spot. It was so great we chased them down for seconds, but the push-cart moved on to another area and we couldn't catch it. Damn, it kicked KFC and Popeye's butts – we're talkin' the ultimate chicken here! I tasted 'at-home business opportunity' as well as chicken and pork ... Some kind of magic batter and cooked perfectly, the best on earth.


Bangkok Bike Garages: Lotsa bikes in Bankok, most of them 150-250 cc, but also a few big ones ... local bikers we met know all the garages. See Thailand #2 blog for a good service experience.

In case it's helpful, a great listing of bike service in Bangkok with editorial comment was formerly on – however it's suddenly gone. But I managed to save a copy as a .pdf file – if you want it, email me and I'll send you a copy. Very good list.

.....Dynamic Motors near Chinatown, owned by a Mr. Yut who speaks
.......English [cell: 081-8669961, office: 2829999] A small place packed to
.......the gills with BMW's under repair and for sale. They re-welded Black
.......Bike's foot peg very well, plus re-threaded a seat attachment point, all
.......for about $15. Nice little shop and Mr. Yut is an exceptionally nice and
.......helpful guy, to us and other bikers. See Laos blog, he saved us there;
.......then did a great job installing a new rear suspension in Thailand #2.
.....Red Baron is apparently the biggest bike shop in Bangkok
.......[phone: 02-729-4131-2] – we didn't visit and they normally only service
.......riders who bought bikes from them, but make some exceptions.

Thailand Vehicle Insurance: Not as easy to find as you'd think, and is compulsory albeit very cheap – about $15 for a year, even if you just use a few weeks and upgraded policies are available ... Finally we found a big company able to do it quickly, and the very nice English-speaking Witchaya Kiriratana looked after us quickly: Bangkok Insurance Public Co Ltd [link] [phone: 66-0-2285-8968, ]


Travels cont'd: Sukhothai [map link]: Spent two nites at the Pailyn Hotel [link] at about US$30 it's the fanciest place in town 3-4 star, recommended. The very fine and quiet 13th-14th century Sukhothai Historical Park [link with photos, history] is about 2 km square, enormous and beautifully maintained, where you see excellent artistic ruins from the old Sukhotai Kingdom – it's a UNESCO World Heritage must-see.

Sukothai Historical Park
Sukothai Historical Park. Wat Si Chum.
Hand detail from the above enormous Buddha.
A good puff-puff hill climb to see 12.5 metre high
old wat Saphan Hin. Thao is in there somewhere.


Chiang Mai [map link] We ended up four nites at the Imperial Mae Ping Hotel [link] at about US$45, huge, modern, 4-star luxury, all amenities near night bazaar and main strips, good shopping nearby, highly recommended.

Chiang Mai is a magnet for whites, lots of expats live here and we can see why – it's a mid-sized town with almost everything but still feels small enough to be friendly. Traffic isn't nuts, the place is medium-mellow and it's a gateway to the amazing scenery of the north.

Wat Phra Singh. (Thao's on left.)
Chiang Mai, Bamboo hotel entrance.

One encounters occasional whites in the process of 'finding-themselves-by-going-local' in self-expression outfits that have nothing to do with local culture or clothes. No turbans or headbands, leather bracelets or crotchless baggy pants exist that we saw in a month of touring Thailand – except on this fellow. Locals must get a chuckle.

Chiang Mai white dude goes quasi-native.
What could Einstein possibly be selling to Chiang Mai citizens?
Not the prettiest lips, but ...
... the best dragon ass I've ever seen.
In front of a Chiang Mai wat: We don't get it either.
One kid snoozes; one clings on; one hand on cell phone;
one hand for steering; mind is elsewhere;
flip-flop shoes – who's quibbling about helmets?
Wat repairs ongoing: Roof shingles made of leaves.
Young monk students clean a murky pond in wat,
throw back lovely koy in there and keep the catfish for dinner.
An evidently hand-carved wat ceiling.
Irreverent kids play at a wat alter, while dad prays.

Went to a really upscale massage palace, Chiang Mai Oasis Spa [link] probably the most expensive joint in town at about $50 for a two-hour Japanese-feeling intense bathing and deep massage. A major mellow! Aesthetically ace. Other massage places abound on the streets, are evidently legit Thai massage, not sexual massage – for as little as $7 an hour.

Through GT-Rider = David Unkovich, we also met a couple Americans living the good life in Chiang Mai area for decades. One of them is from Detroit – just down the street from our Toronto – Dave Early, great guy, also a serious biker, who has a very personal and informative web site Early In Thailand [link] which travelers of the area ought to read.


Mae Chaem [map link] spent a night at Navasuong Resort [link] at $25, owned by a fun Finnish-Thai couple, it consists of cute bungalows in a park atmosphere, with views of Doi Inthanon Mountain [map link], the highest peak in Thailand. Great place and nice outdoor dining room.


Wonderful twisty ride to Mae Hong Son [map link]: Hill tribes, great views, twisties galore.

Spent two nights at the Fern Resort [link] in Mae Hong Son [map link] about $35 – an eco-tourism bungalow on nice grounds, no TV, no phone, very quiet.

Lots of great biking near Longneck Paduang [map link] or Nai Soi [New York Times article link] villages, caves, waterfalls, Chinese villages edge of Myanmar border, mountainous greenery, friendly locals. High recommendation.

Longneck women, Burmese re-settled in Thailand.
Paduang in Nai Soi.
Shortneck kid and his puppies
Check out the expanded-lobe earring; click to enlarge.
A paper on the longnecks, biological effects. Click to read.
They have 1950's Jesus pics, as well as long necks ...
Nice woven wood matting is used everywhere, inside and out.
A rare bad road for Goldwings; paid a local driver
$7 for a few hours to see the longneck village.
Hate rutted mud riding ... hate hate hate.
Crossing rocky rivers is not great biking either.
But deep rutted mud and sand are the worst.


Riding Northern Thailand is something else. Days upon days of one of the best sports-rides on this planet, no hype.

Leaning into turns constantly, bike is seldom upright. Countless tight switchbacks, some in first gear up steep hills, some on nervous-making wet pavement.

Stunning mountain views of dense forest, some of it cleared for farming of rice and tea. Brilliant terracing of hills, with water catchment systems for rice cultivation. Excellent roads, main arteries between cities are are four-lane, but some country roads, by far the better way to go, are really skinny.

Landscapes like this several times a day, for weeks.

It's left-side driving; mostly slow and skilled drivers, few or no close calls. Mostly they drive sanely, plus their cars seem to be relatively new and in good shape – no junkers that we've seen. Traffic outside the cities is light. Bikes go wherever they want; lane-splitting is simply expected.

Up-down extremely steep mountain roads; first and second gear climbs where torque counts more than horsepower; using engine brake versus overheated brake pads; tire traction becomes a factor, some of it being in drizzling rain, on tight switchbacks.

We just don't encounter this kind of riding in N America, seldom in Europe aside from Alps passes like the Stelvio (see separate blog). But traffic there is far heavier and the ride is over in a few hours before it's back to semi-normal mountain roads. Here in Thailand, it's days, or weeks of it, in tropical rain forest and far less manicured.

Most riding described here, even the very hilly stuff, can be done on a rented 125-250 cc scooter, using low gears and carrying your things in a backpack. Indeed it's how most better-heeled locals get around. The Goldwing is sub-optimal for this major twistie stuff, but has behaved very well. The newish Metzeler tires have been exemplary. A smaller lighter bike would enable more 'dancing' but who cares – laden two-up Black Bike made it, no problem.

A couple times I wanted a semi-off-road bike with knobby tires so we could explore non-asphalt trails a bit more – but that's just a few kilometers out of many thousands so far, Black Bike has been a small trade-off versus the 'enduro' choices.

David Unkovich has mapped it all and counted on this northern loop some 1,800 serious turns or switchbacks. Non-stop in many stretches. Riding heaven.

Makes up for months of straight line dashes across deserts to get here.

Passing cheering school kids on winding mountain road.
Friendly old rice farmer we met.
That hand-rolled cigar, sure didn't look like tobacco!


Falling in love happens: We can see why so many expats we met came for a visit, fell in love with the region and decided to stay. Many thousands of whites.

This is fabulous wonderful great riding ... days and days of mountains, twisties, scenery, warm friendly people, 7-11 stores galore, charming little inns, resorts in deep nature or fancy 5-star places, your choice ... and everything is so inexpensive. US$50 a day per couple is ample and that includes gas, hotel meals; it can also be done for half that.

Roads are riding bliss. Gas is around Canada prices, about $1 a litre.

Suffice to day, Thailand and Turkey so far out of 25-some countries we rode this trip, are the two places we could live ... and live like kings, for peanuts. We wouldn't be the first to figure that out.


Nice ride to
Mae Hong Son [map link], stayed at the Soppong River Inn [link] recommended by us and by GT-Rider. The owner Joy is an Aussie, very social, nice bungalows on river, cozy café/resto on grounds, $20, including wi-fi. Highest marks.


Gorgeous soaking wet ride to Pai [map
link], a very trendy but still simple town, to which Thai yuppies and white tourists alike are attracted in droves. We can see why, it's great, make sure you go there once in the area.

A small town, with a village feeling, that is geared for tourism but not obnoxiously so. Almost a hippie era-experience.

Daddy wishes the kid had diapers.

Thao's Favorite Hotel This Trip: (drumroll please ....) Li Lu Hotel [link] in Pai. They have made unfinished grey concrete parging on walls, floors, counter tops with basic wood trim and some slate-like tiles – all work in comfy harmony in a Japanese-Italian fusion. Very comfortable, upscale and charming in a laid back town we love. All this for about US$25-30 including a full American breakfast and sometimes-working wi-fi in the room. Why ever leave? We wonder aloud.

Bad signage to the local
Coffin Caves [link] outside town – almost became our coffin; we climbed up to see them in steep slippery mud; it needed real climbing boots not riding ones. Wheezy slipped down the steep path on his derriere, had mud all over – it was an 'almost.' We were underwhelmed, exhausted and relieved to make it out merely muddy and sweating. You should have a guide, proper climbing boots and they should improve the pathetic signage .... it may be better when it's not raining, but was a dangerous mistake to even try this time of year.

Israeli tourists in the area, hordes of them on scooters – young Israelis come here this time of year because they can afford it due to cheap flights and the low cost of living – we asked.

We visited the local 'canyon' which frankly is an easy miss, a joke of a canyon.

In Pai we rode elephants for the first time – about $15 per hour each, not cheap by local standards – but a very gentle fun ride, far smoother transport than a camel, albeit with speed differences.

Pai: Our guide, riding on the elephant's head.
Elephant-riding movie

Thao at elephant-gallop:
click photo to see rainbow coming out of her head
Rain showers look different viewed from elephant-back?
One of the elephant ranch employees
finds Black Bike more exciting.
Laid-back hippy shop owner in Pai.
I wore a shirt just like that in 1970.

Pai itself is cute town worth a visit. The local tourist attractions – i.e. the caves and canyon – are no big deal, but the town has character from another era. Evidently real estate prices in the area are going up quickly, such is its drawn – already higher than much bigger and more developed Chiang Mai.


Digression: Al Jazeera English TV [link] – so surprising it’s worth a mention. In Pai, the BBC signal was weak, there were no other choices, so we watched Al Jazeera in English. Maybe they tone it down and class it up for their target English audience, but it’s surprising not bad, almost balanced and decent news reporting! The reporters are generally very good.

It is propaganda-leaning of course: The quasi-tragic story of some Arabs in Israel who could not build houses where they wanted, thus were bulldozed, while 'neglecting' to mention that illegal Jewish buildings also get bulldozed there. Not-earth-shattering Israel-blaming.

But surprisingly good and balanced were stories on the moon landing exactly 40 years ago; Saudi no-trial detentions; Hillary Clinton in Thailand speaking on Iran's nukes; the north-south Arab-black treaty in Sudan; starvation in Kenya; faint business recovery signals in USA; forest fires in Canada.

After a few watchings, we were pleasantly surprised, cynicism was lowered, we even enjoyed it, never having watched Al Jazeera before. It was definitely a POV channel, but not what we’d expected. Now we’d like to watch/understand the famed Arabic version …


Doi Tung [map link] is another superb, stunning riding area, parkland beautifully maintained.

Route 1149 [map link] [another map link] near Chiang Rai is superb! It goes right along the Myanmar border to Doi Tung [map link], through gorgeous forests, mountains, along a small winding road. Doi Tung Lodge [link] is a recommended family hotel $35, nice quiet grounds, clean and practical.

It has two historical wats to explore, high up twisty narrow mountain roads. Wat Phra That Doi Tung [terrain map link] is on top of Doi Tung Mountain, about 2,000 meters high, right near the Myanmar border. You get there via a 40-kilometer mountain road with panoramic views.

Wat Phra That Doi Tung was constructed in the 10th century, was renovated by Chiang Rai's famous ruler King Mengrai during the 13th century and by a monk, Khru Ba Siwichai, in the early 20th century. The temple is said to contain the left collarbone of the Lord Buddha; the holy relic draws Buddhists from all over Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.

Wat Phra That Doi Tung
A long boardwalk lined both sides with
brilliant intricate bells you ring for luck.
5' diameter drum, great deep sound.
Love high in the forest: The 'well' tree is
apparently embracing the burned-out one.


Nice Ride to Doi Ang Khang [map link] with a very steep last bit, treacherous fun.

Great riding and scenery en route to Mae Salong [map link]; tea plantations, narrow twisties, gorgeous valleys, Chinese Yunnanese villages. Superb.

In a Chinese village on Burma border. Clay-covered wood.

In Mai Salong [map link] we stayed at the Khumnaipol Resort [link] at $25 for a mountaintop bungalow with nice view. It's a big trek up and down for brekkies, the mattress on the floor is so-so, no fan or AC means it can get sticky ... but still it has charm.

Also in the town of Mae Sai, stay at the charming $20 bungalow village of Umporn Resort [link or their own website link] in Chiang Rai [map link] right on the Myanmar and Laos borders, perfect for crossing into either. We met up with bikers David Unkovich and John Gunston there, crossed together into Myanmar for a few hours – see separate Myanmar/Burma blog.


The Hall of Opium & The Golden Triangle. Our last stop in Northern Thailand – two nights in the Golden Triangle town of Sop Ruak [map link] – 'Golden Triangle' [Wikipedia link] refers to possibly the most historically important opium-producing area in the world – right where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet; very close by are Vietnam and China. You stand on the edge of the Mekong River in one spot and see three countries a short swim away. Smuggling perfection, if you know your way around.

Sop Ruak at Golden Triangle.
The famed Golden Triangle: Laos, Myanmar seen from Thailand side.
E-Z smuggling across the Mekong River? I'd think so ...

Evidently the military state of Myanmar/Burma is still quite active in poppy–opium–heroin base production, which the neighboring countries have brought down drastically in recent decades.

Opium significantly changed the world, more that we realized.
The Hall of Opium Museum [link] is brilliantly done, without any exaggeration 'museum genius' – they get a 100% grade in every way. A must-see if you get to Thailand.

The history of opium and its effect on world history is remarkable; the opium wars between
UK, Japan (plus allies) and China; how an enormous 1/30th of 400 million Chinese at the time, got actually hooked in British-supplied opium from India, while many more Chinese were casual users.

The British exchanged opium for tea and silk, but in the bargain, opium brought down much of Chinese society, in large part leading to Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution. Mao was very anti-opium officially, enforced a tough crackdown, but then cultivated it between 1941-1945 to fund the Red Army.

Winning the Opium Wars, Britain also colonized
Hong Hong as an opium trading port; The Brits did not consider opium immoral at the time and they basically landed the China market, developed much of India – using opium as a compact, highly lucrative trading currency.

The current Afghanistan-Pakistan situation, the opium-heroin profits funding perhaps 70% of the Taliban and likely al Qaeda [NPR 2009 story link] continues the problem next door.

See the
Iran blog on the camel-trading route through Pakistan and Iran – this enormous forbidding desert is the route by which much/most Afghan heroin reaches the European markets today.

Like us, you probably did not know that
Germany's Bayer company tried in vain to patented heroin in 1897; it had already been invented by a Brit and thus was not patentable – but they were the first to make it into a profitable medicine. Then just a few weeks later Bayer patented ASA = Aspirin in USA. One chemist was responsible for both [link]; talk about two home-run products at a time, they still cash in daily, over a century later ...

We cannot overstate the
Hall of Opium's virtues, the best in multi-media in English and Thai. The Thai Queen Mother funded it and what a superb job the museum directors and designers did.

And, once you get here, stay at the excellent Royal Family-owned 4-star Greater Mekong Lodge [link] a hundred meters from the Hall of Opium. Superb, quiet, upscale elegant, US$30 during low season, might be 5-10 times the price in N America or Europe. It's even worth flying here for a week's holiday and driving the area.

We stayed two nights and loved the hotel, indeed the whole area, even though it's a low key tourist-oriented town. And getting here on the country roads - wow. Plus we're only 30 km from the Laos border crossing, where we head tomorrow.

Skule bus we followed.

En route to the Chiang Khong border village [map link] we saw David Unkovich riding solo in the opposite direction, stopped for a chat ... another nice coincidence.

The road to the Laos border hugs the Mekong, nice twisties and very scenic.

The quite funny Thai Border officer who did our paperwork spoke perfect English and was the third person in my life who thought I greatly resemble Gene Hackman, especially with the bike. A decade ago, in an Atlanta Georgia gas station on another bike, I was asked for a Hackman autograph. Well, Mr. Hackman and I met a few times (he made an offer on my boat) and we agreed we do not look alike except for the baldness; I'd rather be mistaken for a young Robert Redford, but that hasn't happened; Gene Hackman will have to suffice.

The Ferry across to Laos was about $15 for two of us and the bike; we were the only passengers. The speed of the river is amazing, it takes serious horsepower and navigational skill to fight the current.

But we made it; another border crossing – our 30th country of this trip!

The egg express, about to cross Mekong to Laos.
Mekong River we are about to cross, Laos is on the other side.
The current is a killer! My wild guess, 5-10 knots.
About to cross the Mekong.
It has a 1' lip at the mud-meets-steel wet ramp edge –
scary if bike falls into the river. But it didn't.

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