Tag Archives: motorbikes

Cape Town: Behind the Scenes (Episode 16)


BBBTV Week 16: Cape Town, South Africa
From the top of Table Mountain to the depths of the Atlantic, Cape Town is a multicultural cultural capital of South Africa. Join us as we summit the Lion’s Head, hit up a street party in Gugulethu, cage dive with sharks, and tour the cape in motorcycle side-cars.

A thousand thank you’s to the following people!  My Destination Cape TownCape Sidecar AdventuresMarine DynamicsCape Town HelicoptersGroot Constantia WinerySimon’s RestaurantDaddy Long Legs Art HotelAshanti Guest House.

Music by Cape Town’s own Al Bairre.

How to Ride a Motorcycle Across SE Asia

Originally Posted on OffTrackPlanet.com

When it comes to Southeast Asia, everyone has the same guidebook and the same itinerary. Chances are you’ve island hopped through Thailand, trekked through Laos, hit a tranny bar here and there and you still haven’t left the crowd behind.

You’re stuck on the Banana Pancake Trail. It’s time to get off…

You need to do something unique; something everyone else is too scared to do. How about buying a Soviet-made motorbike for $300 and riding it from Saigon to Hanoi? Sound crazy? It is – but you can do it and OTP is well-prepared to guide you through one of the wildest adventures to be had in Southeast Asia.

Step 1:

Learn How to Ride

Vietnam is NOT the place to learn how to ride a motorbike. It’s dangerous and you must know at least the basics of riding. If you are still stateside, go to the DMV and take a basic safety course for about $250. Warm up to riding in Asia by renting smaller motorbikes in Thailand.

Step 2:

Make Some Rough Plans (Pick Your Starting Point)

It makes more sense to start in Hanoi if you are coming from China or northern Laos; Ho Chi Minh City if you are coming from Cambodia. Although Hanoi is an easier place to find a bike, either city will work. Buy the bike in one city, ride it to the other and sell it. Simple.

The north-south journey takes a month. If you are short on time, stick to the north and make the beautiful Hanoi-Dien Bien Phu-Sapa loop. Alternatively, you can seek out the EasyRiders, a local Vietnamese crew, that offers short and long-term tours on the back of their choppers.

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Step 3:

Pick Your Highway

You don’t want to make too many plans in advance. Relax and give yourself the freedom to make up your exact route as you go along. You can choose to follow the coast for the beaches, swing into the misty mountains or carve along jungle valleys, beside waterfalls and through thatched hill-tribe villages. While most of the rides offer a great mix of scenery, there’s a fork in the road between Hoi An and Nha Trang.

Take the rural route through Dalat and up into the Central Highlands instead of coastal Highway 1. While Highway 1 connects all the coastal cities in one endless chain of life-threatening traffic, rural roads are usually secluded, peaceful, and incredibly scenic. The great north-south rural highway is called the Ho Chi Minh Highway – follow it across almost the entire country. Although there are far less services available along the rural route, the Vietnamese are incredibly warm people and will usually help you however they can. Besides, learning how to get out of such jams puts hair on your chest, don’t it?

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaWhen planning your route, remember that rain in the mountains, means sun on the beach and vice versa. Also, even when you need to travel along the coast, you can easily hop off Highway 1 and putz along smaller side roads. A great way to learn about the sights along the way is by asking the Easy Rider crew for tips.

P5300024 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaStep 4:

Find a Bike…and Make it a Minsk

Once you arrive, the first step is to find a bike that won’t break the bank. This will require a few days, a bit of tenacity and some bargaining skills.

OTP likes the Soviet-made Minsk. It’s reliable, simple, durable, can handle all the dirt roads you will inevitably encounter and will carry all your crap through rain and shine. They’re also easy to find in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Since you’re too broke for a new Minsk (at $700), a used one can be nabbed for $200-$400, depending on how well you bargain.

Search for For Sale flyers in hostels, restaurants, internet cafes and on the street. If you are in Hanoi, swing past the Minsk Club to look for leads. Some people have been lucky and found bikes on the Internet before they even arrived.

Once you find a bike or two, its time to…

Step 5:

…Bargain Your Ass Off!

You’ll likely buy your Minsk from another backpacker – one who has a month’s less money and a month’s more experience bargaining like the Vietnamese. You’ll need to sit at the bargaining table with some tricks up your sleeve.

Find out the strengths and weaknesses of both you and the seller. His strength lies in the limited supply of bikes – so the more sellers you can play off each other, the better. His weakness is time and an immediate need for funds to continue traveling. To knock the price down you must find the weaknesses in the bike: point out what’s broken, how old it is – anything you can find.

Dance with a few sellers for a bit, then seal the deal over a few pitchers of bia hoi. Play your cards right and he’ll buy you all the spare parts you’ll need to sweeten the deal. Don’t fork over the cash until everything is to your satisfaction.

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

You get what you pay for. You may not need a brand-new bike, but you don’t necessarily want the cheapest bike you can find. Bargain for a good deal, but make sure the bike you buy will actually make it all the way to Hanoi.

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Step 6:

Learn The Minsk

Now that you’ve got your Minsk, lift up her skirt up and see how she works. Tool around the Minsk Club Vietnam website then fine-tune your knowledge by reading our guide below.

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Each Minsk has her own personality, complete with unique quirks. Have the seller explain how to start her when she won’t, fix her when she’s broke, and maintain her along the way. As with everything in nature, the older the bike, the more quirks she’ll likely to have.

Step 7:

Get Some Supplies

You’ll need to prepare yourself for this journey. Every rider should carry the tools and supplies he needs to make roadside repairs. Your bike should come with tools. Some extras you will need: spark plugs, chains, spare lights and brake cables.

As for the belongings you already have in your backpack – shed the junk, keep the basics. You’ll have to carry everything on the back of the bike, so keep it lightweight. Check our Packing 101 Guide for assistance.

Step 8:

Tune Her Up

Wheel her to a mechanic for a full rub-down. Make sure the less obvious components are working as well: namely, the horn, brakes and lights. Spy on how the mechanic systematically checks each part of the Minsk and use what you learn as a guide to fixing her up on your own later.

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Once she is fully tuned, you will have to keep her in good condition. Learn about daily maintenance and you will save yourself a lot of breakdowns.

P6090091 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Step 9:

Rules of the Road

You’re almost ready to take off. The streets of Hanoi might seem like a massive clusterfuck, but don’t stress – there’s a method to the madness. Here’ s the breakdown:

Might is right. Big-ass trucks and tourist buses dominate the center of the road, normal trucks and cars are in the middle and motorcyclists are on the shoulder. Passing is the norm in Vietnam and even the semi-trailers will swing into the opposite lane to pass someone. Stay alert. Typically you drive your bike until you approach another driver from the rear, then honk twice as a friendly signal and pass them on the left side. Repeat all day.

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Getting out of the cities can be the hardest bit. Warm up by hiring a motorcycle taxi and riding around the city to get a feel for the flow of traffic. Repeat until you feel comfortable enough to take off. There is no shame in paying a motorcycle taxi driver $5 to guide you to the outskirts of the city on your first day.

Step 10:

Take Off and Let Go

You now have freedom from itineraries, fixed bus schedules and group tours; you can go anywhere and stop as long as you like.. Just you, the Minsk and the road.

Step 11:

Harness your Chi and Focus Your Zen

There’s something spiritual about embarking on an adventure like this. Here’s a few tips on how to get your Zen on.

  • Slow down. As you plan out each leg of the journey, reign in your ambitions. Remember that you are no longer traveling by bus – driving a motorbike is physically exhausting. You feel every last mile and you are always at the mercy of the weather. The roads are windy, slow and not always paved.
  • Bring yourself into the moment. The constant fear that death lurks around each corner strips away all your distant concerns and brings you to the here and now. You may never do something like this again, so make sure your mind is fully appreciating it and not off in the clouds.
  • Accept setbacks and delays with a smile. When breakdowns happen on the road – and they will – learn to embrace them as a chance to slow down and pause in a part of Vietnam you normally would have sped past. Take five minutes to admire the view of the jungle before getting down to work. Remember, delays don’t exist. You have nowhere to be but here, in the moment. Smile.
  • Open yourself to the endless possibilities of the road. Take as many detours as you like. Check out the small villages, take the road that isn’t on your map and accept the offers to have tea with local families. Vietnamese visas typically last one month, but you are free to extend yours and stay another month or two. And, rumor has it, if you carry enough US dollars, you might be able to use some baksheesh to illegally sneak your bike into Cambodia or Laos.
  • Stick it to Mass Tourism. By taking this bike ride on your own, you have circumvented the middleman between you and your host country. As you journey farther into the misty mountains and away from the tourist trail, you will transcend mass tourism and encounter a more fundamental human relationship with your host country. Differences in nationality, beliefs, age, and income will disappear. While other backpackers are paying $20 a night for “authentic homestays,” your entire journey will transform into one enormous authentic experience.

As you pull away from Saigon, you’ll taste true freedom. As you chase the sunset along Vietnam’s golden coastline, you’ll arrive in the present moment. As you slip into top gear and rip alongside endless fields of rice paddies, you’ll discover what it feels like to be young and alive. That is, of course, how we should feel all the time. But sometimes it takes a bit of old-fashioned adventure to remind us.

The Minsk Dies (Lost in Central Vietnam)

The bike died three days later.  Actually, it died three times within three days, but each day I refused to give up on The Minsk.  I did all I could to bring her back to life, but my efforts were in vain.  I was putting band-aids on a corpse.

I’m no doctor, but I knew something major was wrong with The Minsk.  For some reason the electrical coils in the engine were melting and subsequently the engine died from lack of power.  I rolled her to the nearest farmer’s house, and we sipped tea and gave The Minsk a good look-over.  Yep, we concluded, she is a piece of shit.

The same problem occurred three days in a row.  On the first two days I had to push my bike through the jungle to the nearest mechanic, then wait all day while he drove for two hours to the nearest city to buy the parts, two hours back, two hours to fix it…then, as the clock struck 11 PM, he handed me a bill that was approaching the value of the bike itself.

So for two consecutive nights, I slept in small villages with local families while I waited for my bike to be repaired.  These priceless “homestay” experiences are something most travelers pay for (myself included, see Tomfoolery in the Mekong Delta).  But with The Minsk, I had no alternative.  I transcended the realm of mass-tourism and experienced a form of hospitality that has not existed in the West since the days of horse travel.  Lost, weary, and alone in the darkness, they took me in their homes without question, fed me a warm meal, made me a bed on the floor next to the rest of the family, and sent me on my way the next morning without speaking a word of the same language.

On the third day, The Minsk died about 50 km from civilization, deep in the heart of a remote valley near the Laos border.  I stood at the foot of a towering grey cliff surrounded by tall, skinny palm trees, short stocky ferns, broad leafed bushes, and screams of a thousand jungle animals.  The nearest town was too far away – I would have to wait for a semi-truck to pick me up.

I waited for two hours and not a single truck passed by.  Finally, a big lorry swung around the bend and stopped next to my bike.  We lashed the Minsk to the back of the truck and the drivers took me to the nearest town, cruising in low gear up the mountain passes and jammin’ a playlist ranging from Dancing Queen to Vietnamese techno songs.

We arrived at the next town two hours later, and the drivers helped me take my bike off of the trailer, then wished me good luck and took off down the road.  I tracked down the local mechanic, but he said he was too drunk to fix my bike that night.  Another kind family took me into their home and the mechanic fed me glass after glass of rice whiskey with the other locals.

As much as was I cherishing these experiences, I had to face the facts: the mechanical problems were becoming increasingly expensive and time consuming, I had less than a week on my visa and still 500 km of winding roads to Hanoi.  I had to make a cost/benefit analysis of my situation.  I pulled out a pen and paper and did some calculations – if the bike broke down again, I would have to pay a truck driver to drive me and the bike over 500 km to Hanoi, then pay a mechanic to fix this major problem, then extend my visa just to have enough time to sell the bike.  It was an expensive prospect.  I decided that if it broke down one more time, I would have to abandon the bike and hitchhike to Hanoi.

The next morning I woke up in the morning to hear the mechanic zipping past my host’s home on my motorbike.  Thank God, I thought, maybe this time he fixed it for good.  He was laughing gleefully, and he pulled up to the front door, dismounted, wrote something in the sand, and beckoned me to take a look.

$200 – the cost of repair.  The bike was not worth more than $125.  So he wanted to play hardball, eh?

Ok, amigo, let’s tango.

I low-balled him an offer of 100,000 Dong, or about $6 (which was the ‘local price’ for the basic repair).  He was furious!  He slashed his price to $50.  Quite a discount, but it was still highway robbery.  I offered him 100,000 Dong again.  He sparked a cigarette and stomped around in anger, insisting that I pay $50.  Again, I offered him 100,000 Dong.  He started screaming at everyone in Vietnamese then stared at me deep in the eyes.  I thought he was going to punch me in the face.  I pushed out the 100,000 Dong note again.

Then something strange occurred.  He grabbed the money, and instantly the anger disappeared from his face.  He pulled me by the arm to the nearest restaurant, ordered a full chicken for breakfast and about 8 beers.  It was 8 AM.  The cook of the restaurant grabbed a massive pair of scissors and chopped up an entire chicken (head and all) then slammed the poor mutilated bird down before us.  The mechanic forced beer and chicken down my throat until I finally had to escape the table before he got me too drunk to drive.  I thanked everyone for their hospitality, kick-started the bike, and rode off towards Hanoi.

Or so I thought.  The bike died 20 km later.  I was riding through an intensely beautiful jungle valley, when a loud BANG- BANG- BANG!!! exploded from the tailpipe, the throttle went slack, and the bike slowly rolled to the side of the rode and stopped.  Just the silence of the empty road and the singing of the crickets.  I had progressed only 130 km in 3 days.  It was time to say goodbye to The Minsk.

“Minsky,” I said, “why are you doing this to me?  Why won’t you just work?  Please, please, please, just get me to Hanoi, nothing more!”  I was nearly insane with frustration at this point and talking to a motorcycle seemed perfectly sensible.  The Minsk said nothing.  I screamed at the jungle and karate kicked The Minsk.  “Ah, you bloody Russian-made-fifth-grade-science-project-third-place-piece-of-crap-lawnmower-of-a-motorbike!  I’m through with you!”

The Minsk stared back at me with her bleary headlights, coughed a cloud of blue smoke from the exhaust, and spoke to me in a fading breath.

Mark, don’t be angry with me.  I can go no further.  I am old, I am weary from the road, and it is time for me to rest my bones.  Oh, how many years I have done this journey, from Hanoi to Saigon, Saigon to Hanoi and back again!  It’s always the same – some foolish tourist tries to cram a  five-week journey into the three weeks left on his visa, red-lining the engine, making only enough repairs to get them to Hanoi, then dumping me on another wide-eyed kid looking for adventure…now look at me.  I’m a mess, kaput, finito!

“Ah, Misnky, you are right.   You were not designed for the tropic heat, and you need major repairs, but it’s more than I can afford at this time.  So tell me, what should I do?”

Leave me here, in the farmland, with the people.  This is where I belong, with my fellow comrades.  I want to spend my last days near the rice paddies carrying rice to the market, not flying down Highway 1 with a new neophyte driver every month.  I need someone to love me, to wash me each week, to tighten my bolts and polish my headlight.  Leave me here, and travel onwards, young vagabond. 

It was difficult to say goodbye, but I swallowed my tears, duck taped the key to the gas tank, and left old Minsky on the side of the road for whichever farmer found her first.  For some poor farmer, the bike would be a tremendously valuable asset – to me, just another week’s worth of travel money.  I waved goodbye to my “dependably unreliable” Minsk, and walked down the road.

I hitchhiked off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, back to Vinh on Highway 1 and caught a local bus north.  Instantly, I felt the loss of my freedom – once again I had to pay for taxis and buses.  My actions were limited by Prices and Schedules.  Furthermore, I had lost my special status in the eyes of the Vietnamese: I was no longer the Intrepid Traveler on a Minsk, now I was Just Another Tourist, same as the rest.

I rode the bus to Hanoi and looked out the window, holding my now useless helmet in my hands, reluctant to let go of my adventure.  I knew my decision was rational, but still I felt as though I had abandoned a dream on the roadside, as if Time and Money had overwhelmed my mind and blinded me to the true nature of my journey.  I felt as though I had given up on myself.

But deep down inside, I knew that I was only confusing the true source of regret – that my motorcycle adventure had finally come to an end.  I knew I had chased my dream as far as I could go, that I had given up on nothing.  All good things must come to an end, and the journey simply ended when it did.

It had been quixotic and chaotic, a beautifully romantic journey chock full of youthful bliss, folly and pure adventure.  My frustration vanished and a smile swept across my face.  My adventure was over, but for the first time in my life I had tasted the sweet elixir of genuine freedom.  Freedom had slipped through my fingers this time, but I promised myself to find again and never let it go.  I realized just how much freedom ‘normal life’ lacks – shouldn’t we always be as free as a 23-year old kid on a motorcycle?  Probably.  I will let you know once I’ve figured out the secret to Endless, Boundless, Freedom.

I stared out the window for hours, and soon the lights and traffic of the big city rose over the horizon.  A few hours later, I was standing in a beautiful park in the cultural heart of Vietnam – the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

I Ponder Zen & Motorbikes (Central Highlands, Vietnam)


What is Zen?  We use the word constantly in an abstract manner, but do we even know what it is?  We define it more by what it is not, than by what it is – we think Zen is anything that is not stressful.  We name trendy coffee shops Zen This, ambient chill-out music Zen That, Volume CCCCXX, and, most relevant to my situation, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.   But what is it?  I still cannot define Zen, but on Day Four on the Road, I came a little closer.

I found traces of Zen everywhere on Day Four.  Oddly enough, I found Zen amongst the most frustrating circumstances, in the midst of rain, mud, and motor oil.  I found it within the folds of my own mind, using only a few simple alterations of perspective.  It is easy enough to find peace of mind while sipping Singapore Slings on a beach in southern Thailand, but this is simply escapism.

No, the most rewarding tranquility comes when everything around you is going wrong, when your clothes are soaking wet, your bike won’t start, your back hurts, you are stuck in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country and no one speaks enough English to understand your bitching.

It was here, in this situation, that I found Zen.  With no one to complain to, no one to rely upon, and no one to help me, I scrunched up my fists, bit my lip, took a deep breath and then slowly exhaaaaaaalled… Ahhh… everything will be alright.  Deep breaths.

It rained all day.  I woke up early, determined to complete my journey before the afternoon rains started.  But the afternoon rains from the previous day had not yet abated.  I sipped my coffee in silence and looked out into the early morning rain.  Remember the first tenant of Buddhism, I thought, life is suffering; accept your suffering and do not complain about it.  Yes, it would rain all day.

Everything I owned would probably be soaked.  I could not alter my situation, only how I reacted to it.  I wrapped my valuables in a plastic bag, saddled up the bike, and pushed off into the rain.

I pulled out of Dalat and headed to my destination at Dak Lak, 150 km north on Highway 20.  I was wearing a pancho, but it was entirely useless – the rain dampened my shirt, irritated my eyes, soaked my jeans, and ran down my legs and pooled in my shoes and socks.  Within one hour of leaving Dalat,
I was a mess.  And I still had hours to go.

I was uncomfortable, but how could I let that distract me when I was traveling through such a beautiful land, and by motorbike no less???  Dalat had been crowded with tour buses and honeymooning Vietnamese, but only twenty kilometers beyond the city limits and I was alone in the forest.

And then, just as I crested a hill and plunged into a beautiful valley of pine trees and clouds, the rain stopped and the sun warmed my face, dried my hands, and as for my jeans and shoes…well, it didn’t really do anything for them – they were soaked beyond help.  But, oh, how I welcomed the brief hiatus from the miserable rain!  A break in my suffering!

I slipped the bike into neutral, turned off the engine, let go of the handle bars and drifted downhill with my arms raised to my side.  It was completely silent.  I floated through the pine trees, through the wisps of clouds that hung motionless in the folds of the valley, down, down, down, to the streams below.  I felt like I was flying.  I had found the first traces of Zen.

It was a relatively trouble-free day; my entire exhaust pipe detached from the engine and fell onto the highway, but I managed to rejoin it to the bike using only a screwdriver and a wrench.  I thought of that 16-year old boy who knew my bike inside-out, and I smiled at my modest accomplishment.  I still had far to go, but I was learning something about motorcycle maintenance.

The scenery was so beautiful.  I pulled over many times to take photos, and each time my bike stalled and would not restart (so please appreciate the attached photos!).  Normally I would be frustrated by this, fuming about the damn worthless bike, and worrying about being late to my destination.   But I was in no rush, and I enjoyed the opportunity to take in the sights.  The motor was silent and I gazed over the valleys and listened to the sounds of the forest, the hum of the crickets, the gurgling of the mountain streams, and the sound of the wind whispering through the trees.  I breathed the fresh mountain air deep into my lungs, and smiled in appreciation of it all.  It was magical.

The climate had changed again.  The Mekong Delta was the land of rice paddies, the southern Central Highlands around Dalat were covered in lumber farms, and now I was surrounded by coffee farms.  Hill upon hill, from the valley bottoms to the ridgelines above, were blanketed in coffee bushes.   I passed through small villages, honking and waving at villagers and children.  They waved back and smiled at me, the novelty that I was, and I felt more welcome then than I have throughout my time in Asia.

The rain lasted all day, and I had to take shelter from the storm numerous times.  I sipped a warm coffee, fresh from the nearby hills, hopped back on the bike and continued on my journey.
As the sun came down over the mountains to the west, I finally approached the town of Dak Lak.  My clothes were totally soaked, and my jeans were weakened by the rain and had begun to tear at the thighs.  I was a mess, and the villagers all took turns laughing at me.

The village consisted entirely of traditional longhouses where extended families life together under one roof.  Some people started renting out space to tourists, but most of the villagers continue their traditional lives as fishermen and paid little attention to me as I passed through.  But in my opinion, staying in a longhouse is just an expensive way to sleep in a wooden dorm room!

At night I ate dinner at the only restaurant in town, managed by a motherly older woman.  She took one look at me in my soaked clothes, took pity on me, hugged me, showed me to a hot shower, and fed me until I could eat no more.  Then they pulled out a plastic bottle of brown rice whiskey.  Whew!  I had trouble finding my way back home, considering that every single longhouse was identical to the next.  It took me about an hour, but I finally found my spot, curled up in a ball and fell asleep.
The morals of the story?  First, the beauty of life can be found everywhere and at any time, you just have to know where to look.  And secondly, never drink rice whiskey in a village of longhouses – you may never find your way home!

Over the Hills and Far Away (Nha Trang -> Dalat, Vietnam)

Day Three on the Road marked my departure from the tourist track. Most tourists travel through Vietnam on “Open Tour Bus Tickets”, allowing them to travel to the coastal cities on a pre-purchased ticket along a pre-determined route. But I had sampled the tourists track in Nha Trang, and I had no desire to drive along Highway 1 any longer. No, I wanted to leave that all behind, to fully exercise the freedom of my motorcycle and to journey high up to Dalat and into the Central Highlands along the border with Laos.
I loaded up the bike, waved goodbye to the South China Sea, and pointed my machine west, away from the waves and into the distant mountains. I was going to Dalat, the primary hill station of southern Vietnam.
The city fell behind me and I zipped through green rice paddies where women bent over the flooded fields, tending to their crops in the same way they have for thousands of years. The fields gave way to small villages where all the houses were painted the mustard yellow of French Vietnam. Grey Catholic Churches in the Gothic style contrasted beautifully with the green fields and the yellow villages. The French colonialists might not have known how to govern decently, but they sure how to color coordinate!
It was a brilliant scene. Then my chain snapped as I was going around a turn and I almost skidded off the road. Instantly a man appeared from nowhere and helped me untangle the chain from my spokes. Then he folded down my passenger footrests, started up his bike, put his food on my footrest and pushed my bike in this manner for three kilometers to the nearest mechanic.
Twenty minutes later I was back on the road again with a repaired chain. Twenty minutes after that, my chain broke again – this time it broke so violently that it almost took my leg off with it. It wound itself around the spokes and shredded the chain guard beyond repair.
Then a 16 year old boy popped out of the bushes and began assaulting my chain with a screwdriver and a wrench! He started tearing out bits of metal and jabbering away in Vietnamese while I jumped around screaming, What the hell are you doing?!?! You are destroying my bike! He ignored my protests, and within twenty minutes he had my bike back in perfect working order. I shut my mouth.
I felt like such a worthless city-slicker. I realized how far we have fallen from this boy’s level of technical knowledge, the essential knowledge of how things work. We spend our whole lives in cities, with our eyes on the television and our noses in books, assuming we know so much about the world. Truth be told, we don’t even understand the automobiles that transport us to our offices, how to grow the food we eat, or how to tie any knots besides our shoelaces.
And yet this boy knew more about The Minsk than I did, even though he had never owned a Minsk in his life. I desire this boy’s practical knowledge almost more than the knowledge of mathematical derivatives and abstract political theories. We have grown too ignorant of the foundations of our civilization’s knowledge.
I paid the boy his due and hopped back on my bike, humbled but ready to move on into the mountains ahead. The mountains appeared as suddenly as a monsoon rain, massive eruptions of granite protruding from the wide valley below. The road’s gradual incline and gentle curves were intensified into sharp switchbacks that cut up the face of the mountainside. Waterfalls poured pure water down the cliffs and motorists frequently pulled to the side to refresh themselves in the water, even to fill their water bottles. After two hours I crested the top of the mountain and entered a new world.
Where was I? The temperature dropped abruptly and a furious wind screamed over the ridge line from Laos. No more humid sweat – I was freezing cold. I had departed from the tropics and entered into a forested mountain area, similar in climate to Oregon or Washington State. It started raining cats and dogs, so I cranked up the accelerator and zipped past lumber fields, villages, and farms. There was no one on the road – the only traffic jams were caused by errant cows.
The last 50 km took forever in the rain, but finally I spied Christian crosses on the hill beyond – a French cemetery! I must be nearing the French hill station of Dalat. I arrived soon thereafter and found a hotel. I was too exhausted to do anything but eat and sleep.
Day Three on the Road had taken me from the sub-tropical heat of Nha Trang to the sub-zero temperatures of the Central Highlands. It did not stop raining all night, and I thought of how miserable it would be to drive in this weather. I lied in bed awake at night, listening to the rain and wondering if driving through the Central Highlands was a bad idea. I estimated that it would take at least four entire days of riding to cross the Central Highlands. It was too late to turn back now, so I determined to drive forward, rain or shine. Hanoi or bust!

The Hippy Trail (Pai, Thailand)

Zooooooming on bikes – first signs of Pai – the town itself – the Hippy Trail – conspiracy theories – traveling by bike – an interesting form of hitchhiking

The road snaked through the forests of Northern Thailand, curving up the steep mountain in tight switchbacks.  Jay and I raced through the forest on our motorbikes, our tires spraying pine needles into the crisp morning air.  The canopy shaded most of the road from the sun and a refreshingly cool wind swept across my bare shoulders.  I approached an uphill turn, braked, shifted down to second gear, and leaned into the turn.  My bike arced through the curve and I shifted to third, accelerated through the turn and exploded out of the forest and into a large open valley.

We were getting closer to the Pai, I could sense it.

The signs were a dead-giveaway.  Organic restaurant, 25 km; Yoga retreat, 23 km; Eco-lodge 27 km; Mediation courses 22 km.

Yoga, organic food, mediation and eco-lodges: these were the tell-tale signs of ageing hippies.  We were approaching Pai, one of the most remote outposts of the infamous Hippy Trail of the 1960s and 70s.

What is this Hippy Trail, you ask?  From what I understand, the Hippy Trail is path forged by hippies in the 1960s that stretched from Europe to Asia.  The hippies traveled overland from Europe to the Orient in search of enlightenment and a healthy buzz.  The hardships they endured were legendary – walking everywhere in moccasins, abstaining from showers for years, painfully suffering for days without weed, and in some cases being forced to leave Never-Never Land for extended periods of time.  Some even had to cut their hair and experiment with sobriety.  Though most of the Hippy Trail is to the west of Thailand in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Tibet, apparently a few people underestimated the potency of their ganja and accidently wandered into Northern Thailand.

Today Pai is a quaint bohemian town full of cafés, bookshops, restaurants and the aforementioned yoga studios etc.  It sits in the basin of a large valley surrounded on all sides by hills of forest.  The forest trees range in color from amber to green and are intermixed with banana and coconut trees, giving visitors a strangely disorienting mélange of flora: am I in the jungles of Thailand or the forests of California?  The air was cool and dry for the first time since my arrival in Asia, and at times the ride up the mountainside strangely reminded me of the road to Big Bear.

The town is a clustering of raised bungalows jutting out of the long grass.  The town is bisected by a small brook and a half dozen bamboo bridges connect the lower-rent side to the commercial center across the river.  We rode our bikes through town and selected a moderately-priced bungalow that looked like it would burst into a million pieces should either of us sneeze.

Not all of the town’s accommodation was like ours.  Like many former counter-culture haunts, recently retired hippies are returning with cash to spend and are slowly gentrifying the town.  The river is lined with luxury bungalows decorated à la San Francisco, 1967.

Even the Hippy Trail cannot avoid the reach of 7-11 convenience stores.  7-11s are everywhere in Thailand and their low prices are slowly wiping out the competition – the local Thai inconvenient stores.  The experience is entirely different than patronizing a local store – you are not required to remove your shoes, the AC is always blasting, and very little Thai is spoken.  Many travelers see the 7-11s as examples of how globalization is eroding local cultures.  Ironically, many of these criticisms are made as they purchase their large Chang Beers from the 7-11.

But the 7-11s are not what troubles me.  I think I have stumbled upon a larger conspiracy – the ubiquitous Rasta Bars.

Rasta Bars are everywhere in Thailand: from the beach to the mountains, from small villages to big cities.  Wherever you go you are sure to find a Rasta Bar manned by a dreadlocked Rastafar-Thai blasting Bob Marley CDs and swinging in a hammock, the red, yellow and green flag waiving in the air.  Rasta Bars have more franchises than 7-11, so how has no one has noticed this phenomenon?  Aren’t they all somehow connected in a trans-national secret network?

Some backpackers believe Washington is controlling the world via 7-11s and McDonalds, but I think Kingston is secretly winning the hearts and minds of the world’s youths with Bob Marley and Red Stripe.  How many years does the West have left before all of our youths actually listen to the lyrics and finally chant down Babylon?

These bars are everywhere and I want a piece of the pie.  I have been asking around the local towns, bribing tuk-tuk drivers to drive me to the shady alleys where Rastafarians buy and sell Rasta Bar stocks sub-rosa.   No luck yet, so I’ll have to search for business opportunities elsewhere.

We only spent one night in Pai before returning back to Chiang Mai.  Bus schedules and train times were irrelevant – we were traveling by bike.  We packed up our bags, saddled up the rides, started our engines and rode down the dusty roads out of the sleepy valley and over the hills back to Chiang Mai.

Traveling by bike is a most liberating experience.  You leave when you want to leave, you stop wherever you want, and you can take as many detours as you like.  We passed through terraced farms, small towns and dense forests.  The tune Born to Be Wild echoed in my mind and for a brief moment it felt like we were true Easyriders…but hopefully our story will end better than the film.

Despite all the bugs smashed into my Ray-Bans and teeth, I actually looked pretty damn cool on my bike…until I couldn’t get it started and had to ask a 70-year old Thai woman to start it for me. Yet another humbling experience.

But we were not without inconveniences.  Both of our bikes broke down at separate times and twice we had to hitchhike to the nearest mechanic.  A gentle Thai man picked me up and helped me hoist by bike into the back of his truck, but the bike could only fit upright so he insisted that I ride the remaining 20 km in the back of the truck…on the bike.

So there I was, sitting on my upright motorcycle and riding in the back of a truck.  I watched Jay trail behind me on his bike and we smiled at each other.  I have hitchhiked in India, I have motorcycled in San Diego, and I have ridden through Georgia in the back of a pickup.  But I had never done all three things at once until I came to Thailand.  Priceless.

Times are good.  More stories soon to come.

Next stop: a brief sojourn in Chiang Mai.