THAILAND SOUTH: Coasts 'n karsts.

Click on images to enlarge them.

Street vendor in Bangkok Chinatown


Terrain map of Thailand including South.
The region and our travel from Google Earth


Thailand 3rd visit, Oct 1-12, 2009: After a few weeks of trains, buses and taxis in Vietnam, a short Air Asia [link] jump from Hanoi –> Bangkok. Then a mutually joyous reunion with Black Bike (we could feel its joy vibes, honest) – the latter having been safely ensconced in the rear lobby of the China Town Hotel with 24-hour security. We sure were lucky to find such an ideal hotel staffed by such kind folks; and badly missed riding the last few weeks.

CAUTION: Exploration riding is highly addictive.


In Bangkok we prep'd ourselves and Black Bike for the trip south to Malaysia and Singapore, started our research on how to get to Indonesia with a vehicle. The latter is on surface simple, but is not at all easy these days – car ferries across the short distance are evidently history. Many road warriors would likely give up, ship the wheels to Australia – but we hear Indonesia is just fantastic and have a good friend living there. Plus it's our last 2nd-3rd world country of the trip, we have the time, hence we persevere.

See Indonesia blog for details, as yet unwritten. Once we figure it out, actually do it, will share this hard-to-get info with readers.

Flying there is easy; getting wheels there is not – even with a Carnet de Passage on which Indonesia is listed as a subscriber/member.


Yacht-building fires re-kindled: Due to the coincidence of working with the same superior naval architects Sparkman & Stephens [link] we met up in Bangkok with fine yacht builder and very personable Dan Fritz, President of the Canadian-owned, China-built Sea Spirit Yachts [link]. This is a fibreglass trans-ocean yacht with similar safety philosophy to the steel Cape Horn Yachts I used to build. Dan is also President of both Crescent and Queenship Yachts [link], high quality coastal yachts made near Vancouver.

He's an impressive yacht guy – and take my word on this, it's a very difficult high-risk business Dan has thrived in for decades.

We got to talk about tough trans-ocean boats for many hours, among my favourite topics, and apparently his. Must confess, even while biking the world, the ideas bouncing back and forth got my yacht-building juices flowing again.

It so happens that Wheezy got the Cape Horn intellectual property back recently, the fellow who bought them having tragically passed away. What to do with Cape Horn during a weak yacht economy, has occupied the mind during many riding hours, will likely continue to ruminate for a few more countries ...


Thai kickboxing: With Dan we attended kickboxing at Lumpinee Stadium (there are two main kickboxing stadia on alternative nights.) Even if you are not normally a fight fan, it's a recommended experience, both culturally and athletically.

However in absolutely killer traffic the taxi took 1.5 hours to get a relatively short distance, so we missed the earlier high-end events; the younger fighters – some around 12 years old (?) – come on towards the end. Ask your hotel about tickets, but arrive sooner than we did [event promoter link.]

As a general warning: Traffic in Bangkok is standstill awful much of the time. No matter what you plan to do, allow much more time than you initially think necessary, just to get there and back.


Digression: The Sex Industry in SE Asia: Thailand is a famed sex holiday destination, as is Cambodia, so may as well address the topic.

From what we garner in the media, one had the impression that the Asian sex trade exists for Western clients. Many planeloads a year of German men for example, coming just for a sex trip, saw a 'tsk-tsk' TV show on that once.

Yes, this happens – but the sex trade's existence for tourists is simply untrue according to various studies read online; in Cambodia and Thailand, the great majority of clients in any brothel, massage parlour or karaoke bar are Asian men – most being from neighboring countries.

But professional sex here is dangerous: According to UNAIDS almost 4% of all Cambodian adults between 15-49 are infected with HIV-AIDS; in 1998 studies showed >42% of sex workers were infected, only about half of the prostitutes regularly use condoms. Current numbers are likely even higher. Plus of course one is dealing with financially motivated poor people at the forbidden outer edges of society – posing yet another type of physical danger.

That said, Wheezy and his wallet got many 'inviting' looks throughout the region, by quite young ladies, gays and often hot-looking very female transexuals. Thao's presence was no deterrence, indeed many probably figured she was just my 'date', Thao being Asian, young and very pretty; me being none of the above.

If you do a Google search, you'll find many articles and videos on the child sex trade here, which although technically illegal, evidently thrives; not just here, but in many poor countries.

Thao and I had hoped to attend one of the classier sex shows available, even got a couple recommended clubs' names, but somehow we just never cared enough to actually go. Not that either of us is disinterested in sex. A case of chacun à son (manque de) goût I suppose.


Tech Talk: Skip this section if you're a non-biker, your eyes may glaze over; this is a 'round-world bike trip after all, so it's important in this context. See 'Bike Tech' section of this blog for details.

Suspension upgrades for GL1800: The Goldwing suspension is the one absolute must-do alteration for a serious ride like this, on an otherwise superb machine. We badly needed a new rear suspension the last 5,000 km, the Goldwing's rear spring has been overworked beyond its limit. Dead, kaput, RIP. We'd been bottoming out on small bumps lately, handling suffered, as did Thao's derrière. Plus I wanted more ground clearance at the back end. (I regret not getting a heavy duty rear suspension while at home, but live 'n learn.)

One smart thing I did before leaving Canada: The excellent frond end Traxxion [very honest/blunt explanation of GL1800 forks link] suspension has held up brilliantly. After much correspondence with people who ride/fix a lot of Wings, for the rear end I decided upon the Racetech [link] GS-3 [link].

Racetech custom made one for our specific situation, FedEx delivered it from California –> Bangkok in a couple days, but took a few days and $100 to clear Thai Customs. This was the culmination of many weeks research and emailing.

Star bike service shop: Went back to Mr. Yut, owner of Dynamic Cycle []; he and his team took the bike apart, installed the new suspension for roughly $100, a bargain for quality work.

It works like a charm so far, will report once we have torture tested it; my guess is we have some 50,000 km to go, which is asking a lot of a heavy motorcycle's shock/spring.

While chez Yut, I had new EBC [link] rear brake pads installed as well, evidently good stuff and the best brand that was available. See the Laos blog; wrong (fraudulent) pads were installed in India. For gory details see 'India Bike Service' blog.

Star tire manufacturer: Metzeler Tire, (a Pirelli division) yet again. Removing the rear wheel for suspension installation, I did a tire inspection, found a couple things that concerned me on my rear ME880. So as a precaution I contacted Metzeler by email, had a response from their Singapore office within an hour; they simply swapped out the old one for a new tire (!) here in Bangkok. Damn, that's beyond-the call service; from first contact to new tire installed, it took less than 24 hours. I was prepared to buy this tire, that sells for $300 in Thailand.

Best tire shop in Bangkok: If you need a tire in SE Asia, call Mr. Boy who speaks perfect English [cell +66-081-621-6663, office +66-2-223-8214] at Dumrong Yang Yont. They are Thailand distributors for Metzeler, Dunlop and other major brands, cars and bikes. He had one Goldwing rear tire in stock, installed and balanced it with modern machines, all within 15 minutes. You simply can't beat this service, anywhere.

Bike service places in Bangkok: 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.


Cool bikers and yachtie couple encountered at Mr. Yut's garage, Mike and Jennifer Gough. Their Honda Shadow, a Harley look-alike, was brought in with a very dead alternator – on the back of on Mr. Yut's pickup truck. They're Australians, Tasmanians actually [map link] living on a sailboat, but also seriously into bike travel. He's a retired airline pilot, she a nurse, we all hit it off, they checked into our hotel, we hung out a bit and stayed in touch since.

Epilogue: Their Honda parts were impossible to find in Thailand so Mr. Yut got the alternator re-wound, with apparently limited success. The Goughs rode much of SE Asia on it but the Shadow they otherwise loved (even named it Kermit), just kept quitting electrically. So at Jennifer's prodding and I suppose not much resistance from Mike, in Malaysia a few weeks later they picked up a Goldwing like ours – except blue and new. The prices of a GL1800 in Malaysia is over double Canada costs, but they'll sell it there eventually so the losses won't be horrendous.


Travels: Hua Hin [map link] is a coastal town, on the skinny part of Thailand. It's a Thai and white tourist town, where Bangkokers go for a beach fix, kind of expensive by SE Asia standards, packed with hotels and shops. To us biker trash having done much of SE Asia by now, it's a bit predictable for a fishing village turned holiday town, lacking the 'authentic experience' element.

We stayed at the Fresh Inn Hotel [reviews link] right across from the Hilton, which we recommend you skip, regardless of what others say on-line. Teensy room, internet didn't work except in the sweaty lobby contrary to their claims and by Thai standards not worth the $55 they charged. But they had a room and the better places were sold out ...

So we strolled to a nearby restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet for an OK meal ... but in the Small World Dept., who walks in as we're eating, but John Gunston and his Thai lady whose name we lost – John is our BMW biker friend, a photojournalist living in Thailand who we'd met through David Unkovich = GT Rider, way up north near the Laos border (see Thailand North and Burma blogs) ... what a nice coincidence!

Caught up and got more travel tips about north Malaysia ... John being a walking encyclopedia on the many countries he has travelled professionally and personally. Another fortuitous coincidence ...


Same-same riding: Frankly the trip through South Thailand was a monotonous ride after the far-more interesting and challenging north; plus having just done the less-developed neighbours to the east, we're shamelessly jaded.

From Bangkok to the Malaysia border was some 1500 km in five easy days of actual riding [approximate route link] plus visits and stops. In a rush it could be done in two days of freeway.

South Thailand is flat. Perfect roads. Uber-civilized for the most part. Lots of modern gas stations with ubiquitous 7-Eleven stores stocked with all the goodies. It's too much like home for us, except for nice beaches and palm trees if you seek them out. Many do just that.

Koh Samui is evidently a lovely island off the east coast [photos link] that we missed.

This is Asia very light. We were ready for something more akin to Adventure Travel; warm freeways we can experience in southern USA.


Travels cont'd: Ranong [map link] on the west coast – it's just 5-10 km from the southern top of Burma/Myanmar. It was just a place to sleep when the sun was setting – but what a great little hotel find!

Fine motel/hotel in Ranong: Highest recommendation to the charming and brand new family-run place where we ended up spending two nights – partly because when we awoke the first morning, it was pouring, so why rush and get soaked? Siriporn Resort is 7 km south of town and has wi-fi in the room (others in town don't); wonderful service, warm people, they bring you quite decent meals at bargain prices, have sheltered bike parking, the room is great and modern – all for about $20.

Do stay there on your way north or south, nowhere else!

Cottage-type room, just great.
Hotel-type rooms as well, a lovely tasteful job this family did.

An exception to the boring freeway: The lovely coastal ride from Ranong to Phuket along the coast [route link]. Nice ride.


Phuket [map link]: Naturally we had to visit, it's so famous as a tourist destination, indeed for expats' relocation there. Thailand's largest island, in southwest, connected to mainland by a long bridge and many ferry services, highly developed, mostly modern.

It's a lovely island in some areas. The town itself didn't blow us away, although it has all amenities, broad shopping ops and services.

But the hilly shoreline, twisting coastal road and beaches away from town are wonderful – one sure can understand why foreigners have homes and/or yachts here. It's no longer a bargain to obtain land in the area and there are government restrictions on what foreigners can do in terms of ownership. Look it up if interested.

That said, we experienced a very civilized slice of tropical paradise and a welcome respite from some 450 days of the biker hotel life.

Brit in Phuket: It was good fortune and another fine coincidence of timing, that Michael has an engineer working for him who happened to contact me about a boat restoration project underway.

Welsh-born Michael and I had met in the yacht business, he was aboard my own boat in Florida; admired Cape Horns and their redundant strength. He even bought five copies of my book (I looked him up in my old database.)

However at the time I was just getting started, wasn't building in his league. Cape Horn didn't build sufficiently big, nor with Dutch excellence in finish. It's true: The Dutch are the very best at the high end of steel trawler yachts; indeed they invented the very yacht concept. I aspired to their level of fit-'n-finish, a challenge in Canada without the yacht infrastructure of Europe.

Michael ultimately bought a Dutch Doggersbank [photo link of sister ship.] Stunning in steel.

Anyhow Michael invited us to visit. A remarkable man, seriously well-read, some of his reading is a bit esoteric for my tastes, but one learns from listening; plus his broad practical knowledge on engineering, business and social realities.

And OMG a sound system! Walking into his living room, having been starved for fine music on the current trip's iPod diet – an amazing, warm, realistic, all-tube sound system and vinyl record collection, mostly classical. Beyond superlatives.
. . .For non-audiopiles, tubes are much more natural sounding than solid state
. . .and 33 RPM vinyl beats CD's hands down if you have the right equipment.
. . .In Thailand yet – he had to import it all.

A cliffside home of understated elegance with a view of the blue bay and islands beyond postcard. Pet chickens with names. Waterfalls and splendid natural gardens. Lounging while looking at a tropical paradise, cigars, wine, Mozart with Thai home cooking. Chatting business, boats and behaviour. What a treat. The man has figured out how to live well, far from the crowd. With great admiration and respect from us.

Swimming pool in foreground, Doggersbank afloat.
photo by Michael.
View from the condo he kindly loaned us –
biker trash laundry drying in paradise.
Michael's cook & her hubby; blurry shot but of fine folks.
Phuket mall; A common booth in SE Asia,
fishies eat dead skin etc. off your feet.
This lady's not blissed out, but fish evidently are.


Phuket big bike garage & SE Asia tour guides: Somehow all these bike-oriented things are under one evidently-effective umbrella: Ride Magazine in English [link]; Phuket Bike Week [link]; a fine, clean well-stocked BMW bike garage that has worked on many Goldwings.

A good bike shop; Wittaya Singkalah is Director [mobile 081-691-9346]. The shop manager speaks English. I got them to check brake pads and tires as a safety precaution, no issues found. It cost $15.

Important info: They organize tours of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and apparently even get their tours into Vietnam (!!) [phone: 076-352069] Don't ask me how they get you in ... but sure wish we'd known about them sooner. If we could have, we would have hooked up with a group riding Vietnam for sure; far preferable to public transport if feasible.


Travels cont'd: Departing Phuket in mid-afternoon, did 300 km to Trang [map link] by sunset.

Rode through the limestone karsts [photos link] in Phang Nga province, but it was raining and we wanted to make tracks. Besides we had done a boat tour through very similar and likely even more stunning karsts in Halong Bay Vietnam a few weeks prior.

Trang and the surrounding area is beach resort geography, with high end hotels and amenities; many regard it as a holiday destination.

By riding the main drag in town, we chanced upon the Queen Hotel [link] just before the sky opened and dumped buckets. Close call. At $17 inexpensive digs but perfectly acceptable for us (dry) biker trash; it even had wi-fi and sheltered bike parking.


Narathiwat [map link] is on the eastern side of Thailand close to the Malaysian border, so is a good last stop before a morning crossing if you wish to do a cross-country ride next day as we did – as recommended by John Gunston.

We stayed at the Imperial Hotel, part of the same chain we stayed at in Chiang Mai (deluxe there!), although frankly this one is in a different league. It's the best place in town at $40, wi-fi is charged extra and only works in the lobby, the food overpriced, no English TV, poor value in a little-visited town. Give it a miss unless you have no choice.

Boys in Narathiwat, one less than thrilled to be photo'd.
Fish farm in village, shrimp we believe.


South Thailand Islamist politics: A police and army presence like we had not seen since a few Middle East countries; we encountered perhaps twenty road blocks on just the one road. They apparently exist nowhere else in Thailand. The soldiers always waved the Canadian bikers through in a friendly smiling manner; we were not what they were looking for. They did however have at least one vehicle being inspected at each roadblock.

We experienced only friendly people, zero negative issues – in spite of being warned by quite a few that it is an 'iffy' area to drive. We can also say that of numerous armed conflict regions in this round-world trip – insurgents and other nasties have fortunately left us alone.

There is indeed an armed separatist movement in this region, supposedly financed by drug money, while its backers and connections are evidently sketchy. This is a Muslim region within a mostly-Buddhist nation, but so what? – religious-cultural minorities exist within the majority of nations (including our own) without armed rebellion.

Nonetheless this one has chalked up a considerable body count – even though:
. . . .a referendum in the three southern provinces of 3.7 million people
. . . .was 87% in favour of staying within Thailand!

An overwhelmingly majority have spoken; the minority continues to yell. Wikipedia has a good summary of it [link] that is apparently uncontested. One quote stands out:
. . . . .A massive security presence in the region has failed to stem
. . . . .almost daily violence, usually involving drive-by shootings
. . . . .or small bombings ... As of September 2006, more than 1,400
. . . . .people have died in less than three years of southern violence.
. . . . .Most have been innocent bystanders, both Buddhists and Muslims.

Thailand is an figurative island of prosperity and opportunity within the SE Asia region. Immediately next door are far-less-prosperous Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and catching-up-quickly China.

Plus Malaysia is a direct neighbour, which for the neighbourhood, is doing very well indeed.

Why something between 1% and 13% of the southern population would want to leave Thailand with total disregard for both common sense and the great majority of popular sentiment ... is beyond me and apparently many others.

Likely – most of the time this is true – it's a wannabe power/money grab by a few disaffected, ambitious guys who don't have what it takes to work within the legit system.

Muslim Malaysia evidently doesn't want these Islamists either.

They want to form their own mini-state with a population of 2-4 million? When they are already part of a successful and pleasant nation full of opportunity? With a very successful Muslim nation just next door? Nuts.

Fanatic and irrational Islamism seems to be at play here, as regrettably elsewhere. This one seems, from brief reading, to not be backed by Al-Qaeda.


Between three visits, we'd spent almost two months in Thailand, loved the great majority of it – but we'd had enough, at least for this trip.

'Malaysia, Truly Asia'
is what their much-aired musical TV jingle calls it. But in our experience, not quite!

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