The ‘nasi lemak’ of motorbiking

 

Been in Vientiane for a week now. And had three days in Bangkok before that. In one apt word: waw (as detailed in my other blog, laoconfidential.wordpress.com).

The biking scene in the Thai capital surprised me, I have to say: a LOT of scooters and semi-automatic two-wheelers. As in a LOT. Anything between 125cc and 250cc.

I heard/saw two Harleys, walked past a parked Ducati Hypermotard Corse, and glimpsed a battered Hornet, and that’s about all in the class above. Given some of the posh cars that drive along, I was really expecting more on the biking front. You live and learn don’t ya.

What I saw there gave me a good indication of what Vientiane would offer. And on that one I wasn’t mistaken. The choice is between plasticky automatic scooters and shabby-looking ‘manuals’, meaning a strange Asian mix of a pedal for going up the gears with the toes and another for downshifting with the heel but NO clutch.

Lots of roadside ‘garages’: dusty and rusty building fronts where someone sticks a spanner in the fairing under the guise of a parasol.

Quite a few dealers as well, either ‘official’ or not. How do you differentiate? Take a coin out of your pocket and toss it.

Given that my Ténéré is 3 months away, I knew from the start I’d get a cheap something in the meantime. Especially since I don’t fancy spending even 60,000 kip (or 5 pounds) a day for a properly dreadful Kolao scooter with no rear suspension, no lights, an engine that either stalls or is stuck above 3,000 rpm, no mirrors and working clocks of any kind. I do really hate to be ripped off.

Question is, which? As in which brand and which kind should I go for.

I did my market study. But eventually, in my case at least, it’s often the human element that counts. The human adventure. The personal contact.

So last week I stopped at one of these building fronts with a colourful array of two-wheelers parked. The brand is, apparently, ‘Demak’. News to me. I knew Lifan, Kolao, and of course all the Japanese brands, but Demak?

Anyway I stop and there and then, on this dusty old busy road, sandwiched between a clandestine petrol station and a sorry flat, after spending the day trying to decipher what each and every would-be seller was telling me, I meet Wei Ling.

Wei Ling is a lovely woman, smiling, helpful, funny, with brilliant English. Surprising, yet unsurprising when you know she’s from Singapore. She got her first job in Vientiane 20 years ago, loved the place as it reminded her of the Singapore of old, in the 60s, a quiet backwater where life’s sweet, slow, and serene. It’s changing. Still, her and I agree that there’s few capital cities as chilled as Vientiane, even now.

So she stayed. Married a local. Worked for Honda. Then a year or two ago quit and opened this Demak dealership. Didn’t have a coin, so can’t tell you if it’s an official one, but in a country like Laos, official doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning as in the UK, where things are pretty black and white. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand about communist dictatorships and other third world countries.

Demak, she tells me, is a Malaysian manufacturer. They’ve got quite a cool ‘Combat’ model, a sort of plastic-covered Minsk-like bike. 150cc, with cruiser-like passenger footrests, big engine guards, a weird look in between a bloated fish and a green bin bag.

A few days later, I try it. It moves forward, and the clutch feels like it’s going to break any minute. And the brakes are very lazy. All in all, it makes the Ten look like the most brilliant bike ever. But it does the job, and anyway anything resembling, even vaguely, the quality of the Ten is 250cc Ninjas, which are about 8000 dollars and for which I don’t see much point in a city where only the main streets are tarmac-ed.

Then I jump on the Demak 150cc supermoto. Actually, I quite like it. Not breaking news since I’m a supermoto fan, but it’s got a lot more punch than the Combat, and sounds pretty okay, considering.

The exhaust note is, in passing, something else where my Ten will be so far ahead of all of the bikes here! Oh man. It’ll be both embarrassing and orgasmic.

In the end, the supermoto is useless as I want to take Alex on the back and the seat is tiny.

Today I went back. I thought I was going to sign for the Combat. But hope and reason prevailed. Reason because the automatic scooter I’m collecting tomorrow is cheaper than the Combat, and will sell easily. And hope because the plan is to get Alex to ride. The Combat would have been useless for that with its weird and ultimately confused and annoying hesitation between auto and manual.

Alex has never ridden a motorbike. Doesn’t have a driving licence either. Traffic scares her. But she took control of that battered Kolao I mentioned for about an hour on Sunday, riding it on country roads with barely any traffic. And she did well.

I also am convinced that it would come in SO handy for her. It’d give her massive freedom and independence, which also means we could get a house a bit further from the centre than without an engine.

My take on biking is it’s empowering. Do it at your own pace, it doesn’t matter, but be free as the river innit.

At any rate, it’ll carry me around until the Ten arrives. If after that Alex can’t be asked and really is reluctant, then I can sell it on, or even keep it as a spare in the event of something going wrong with the Ten. At 1,150 pounds, it’s not like I’m selling a lung.

 

 

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The wheels of life – in Thailand

So far, the pain of carrying my helmet around hasn’t paid off: I’m still walking around Bangkok on foot. I don’t mind, though. Instead of riding, I look at the 2-wheeling scene, and it’s pretty drab. Which is not reassuring for Laos.

In two days, the biggest bikes I’ve seen are 2 Harleys. A kind of Hornet fizzed past this morning, but after that it’s scooter and small capacity bike paradise. The strangest thing, to me, is how silent most of them all are. In fact, the loudest vehicles around are the tuktuks, which all seem to have sporty exhausts, and some taxis.

On my Ten, I’ll be spotted a mile away here. Again, that says a lot about how conspicuous I’m going to be in Vientiane, not to mention rural Laos.

There’s a lot of Toyota Fortuners around – slightly altered Land Cruisers. As far as roads go, they are straight, long, very busy, and in decent nick in the centre at least. Sticking to speed limits doesn’t seem to be a main priority.

The police ride 200cc ‘boxer’ bikes with a bit of front fairing and a screen.

Weather’s grand, mild when the sun is down, people are nice enough, with so far none of the hassle were given in China: no finger pointing and laughing for instance. We shall see if the same applies to rural Thailand later, when I get hold of a bike and visit Thailand from across The Mekong in Vientiane.

The centre of Bangkok consists of a collection of big shopping malls, and yet the impression is different from China. I won’t complain.

Walking around day and night, I’ve seen a number of older white men doing just like me. Funny how I always wonder whether they are pedos on the prowl.

Bye bye Ténéré

With temperatures dipping, I had to ride to the opposite side of London yesterday and drop off the bike in view of it being shipped to Laos some time in the future. I was hoping the mild winter weather would accompany me there, but I must have pissed someone off.

In the end, I never had time to prise the pannier with the broken key in the lock open, so I rode in my summer gloves, and my fingers were mighty cold. Every time I stopped at lights, I stuck my hands under the fairing near the engine. Didn’t do miracles, but it helped a bit.

The offending pannier, I decided to ship with our normal stuff so that customs didn’t break it open. Heard stories.

Having also shipped my tankbag and left the A to Z in storage, I was travelling virtually blind and, OF COURSE, I ended up riding past the Ace Café London, a place I’d been mildly interested in visiting without ever caring to find out where it actually was. So I stopped. For directions. Can’t say I was taken by the smiles and openness of the crowd I met there, and although an Irishman gave me the right directions, I felt a bit like a black man in a small mid-West American town’s saloon.

Anyway I enjoyed the coincidence.

Then I went for my last climb at Mile End, and obviously HAD to forget my helmet there. So today, I gotta go back there. But then I can start riding in Bangkok as of Sunday. Oh yea.

One of ’em days

 

Once in a while, nothing really works for you. Without warning, without any rational explanation as to why, it’s as if you’d just spent the night in a bad luck bed and it sticks with you all day long.

For me, 28th December 2012 was one of ’em days. A weird succession of little mishaps and pixellation, surprisingly all relating to motorbiking. Or is it to Yamahing?

I was due to play tennis with Mike from my climbing centre, who lives in Bromley. Picked up the Ten and rode off. At the Lewisham roundabout, exiting on the A20, with light green for traffic, two late teenagers decide to cross the street. They’re a good 30 metres away, but as I ride towards them one of them slows down to a near stop, eyeing me down defiantly. His mate is safely on the pavement, and to avoid his cunt of a mate I brake hard and swerve.

Is it me ageing and I’m missing something there, or did he have a death wish, or did he just mistake the Ten for a bull even if he didn’t have a red jacket?

Whatever the reason, it transported me straight to Laos. In Laos as in China and most developing countries I have visited, traffic and pedestrians work to different rules. But for a donkey here or there in Europe, people and cars follow a set of shared standards, there are dos and donts. Out in Laos, my bearings will take a big big beating, and this idiot staring me down acted as a potent reminder: ‘expect the unexpected’ goes the expression, a cliche, but a useful one.

All my senses will have to be on alert from the very start, a bit like when I started biking back in 2010 on my Vanvan.

We had a great hit with Mike, and I can’t thank him enough for that. Also met his wife and kids, who all seem very nice, which one would never believe knowing the man (eh eh).

After a drink at his place after the game, Mike dropped me back off at the club’s carpark and I set to dress for the ride back. The Metal Mule panniers’ locks had been given me grief virtually from the moment I mounted them, and as I prepared to wrestle for another minute or so to prise the pannier open, the bloody key snapped right off. One half in my hand, the other stuck in place in the lock.

G-R-R-R-R-R-E-A-T.

My winter gloves and balaclava were in there. So I rode home with bare hands and my scarf wrapped up tight around my neck. Thank god for the handguards.

Back past the Lewisham roundabout, having been followed by a fuzz car for a few minutes, I elected to turn right at a light. Which was the way I’d come. But just as I got into the road, I saw three painted white arrows pointing towards me on the tarmac, and only three lanes. Oops, wrong way then!

Just as I stopped and started backing off with a big apologetic smile under my helmet, I heard the police car siren. Cue the car in my mirrors. Oh dear…

I turned around, they turned around, and we stopped 20 metres further into a side street for a chat. Luckily they only told me where to go: no paper check (all my papers being somewhere in Wales at the DVLA’s offices), no glove check (in the out-of-bounds pannier), and no fine. I guess the fact I’d already started backing when they turned up put their mind at rest I was not a one-way-street thrill seeker.

‘Alright’, thought I, ‘they come in 3s don’t they’. I was wrong.

Pitlaning home to fetch my summer gloves and necktube, I parked by our flat. Returning with my gear, I tried to turn the ignition back on. And it wouldn’t. I just couldn’t get the key to hit ‘on’, it was stubbornly refusing the turn that wee bit more. So for the next minute or so I fought with the fucker, playing with the handlebars and the barrel until, thankfully, I was able to get back on.

Now I know they might also come in 4s.

Anyway it stopped there, the rest of the day came and went, blissfully uneventfully.

In 6 days’ time, I’ll be dropping the bike at the removal company HQ in Wembley. I’ll spend 3 months or so in a crate, and the next time I’ll see it will be in Vientiane, Laos. No doubt I’ll have a few surprises there, but we’ll see in due time.

In the meantime, I’ll have to get my brains in gear for moving around in that fabulous country.

 

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