Thursday, April 10, 2008

Northern Thailand - The Launch

I've been looking forward to a ride through the mountains of northern Thailand for years, and finally all the planets aligned sufficiently to make it happen.

Large bikes cannot be manufactured in Thailand and not many have been imported. There are some available for rent, however. At the recommendation of a couple of friends, and David Unkovich's website, I went to Mr. Mechanic to start my trip.

This 125cc Honda may not be every biker's "Dream", but I haven't driven any kind of vehicle in Thailand since I lived here decades ago, so I decided to start out small to get used to the rules and culture of driving here. I rode this bike for 2 days to explore the city and a popular nearby mountain. The last Honda Dream I rode was the fantastic Honda 305 Dream, way back in 1966. Curious how that famous name got put onto this little scooter.

Just beyond the popular temple on Doi Suthep, just northwest of Chiang Mai, is the Royal Family's summer palace, Pu Ping. I had visited these places more than once previously, but this time continued up the small, winding road to Doi Pui and a Hmong village. I stopped to wander through the myriad tourist shops and to take a couple photos.

Continuing up the mountain to the end of the road, I took this photo of the village from above.

One objective of this trip is to investigate retirement possibilities. Another objective of every ride is to follow random roads in an attempt to "get lost." In this spirit I set out in search of an air park developing in the Chiang Mai area. With only a few wrong turns I was able to find the little airport, and discovered that the website makes it look considerably better than it is. The potential is great, but I don't see myself buying a plot of land here, as much as I enjoy flying.

Looking down runway 09.

Returning to town, I stopped at one of the hundreds of Buddhist temples to take a couple pictures.

Old Chiang Mai was surrounded my a wall and a moat. Parts of the original wall still remain as does the moat. I stayed in a small hotel just outside the old city, just across from this fountain in the moat. Behind the fountain is part of the orginal wall.

After my 2-day intro ride, Itook the "Dream" back to Mr. Mechanic and traded it in for a Honda Shadow American Classic Edition. It looks just like the ACE so prolific in the US, but has only a 400cc engine. Though I'm used to having more power available, I found this bike very adequate on all but the steepest mountain roads, where I really missed my 750cc Magna.

The good-looking, but under-powered, Honda ACE.

I started out with a one-day loop to the southwest of Chiang Mai, to Samoeng. This is a beautiful road, spotted with several resort hotels and lots and lots of greenery. If I retire in this area, it will probably be somewhere very near this loop.

At the outermost point of the loop, in the city of Samoeng, I stopped at this restaurant for lunch. The absolute quiet in this small town was unbelievable. And relaxing.

Continuing up the loop from Samoeng I stopped at a viewpoint to take a picture or two of the burning mountains. The ever-present smoke took a lot away from the views on my entire ride, not unlike my ride up to Montana last August, when the entire state seemed to be on fire. At this viewpoint I met a Kiwi who was a teacher at the private international school a few miles north of Chiang Mai I had been looking into for the past couple of years as a possible part time teaching job in retirement. He confirmed my suspicion that they are somewhat reluctant to hire Americans.

My last stop on the loop, to the northwest of Chiang Mai, was the Mae Sa elephant camp. I had seen this show profiled on the Travel Channel, so it was very interesting to see it in person.

After playing soccer together, and painting some remarkable pictures, among other tricks, they came over to beg for some bananas.

The hazy city of Chiang Mai from the mountains.

This was one of the best one-day rides ever.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Sawasdee Pi Mai

A couple of years ago I had planned to make my first return to Thailand during the celebration of the Songkran Festival in April, when my friend John would still be there. Bad weather in Bakersfield made that impossible and delayed my trip until July. I had hopes of returning again this past winter, also when my friend would still be there. Bad management made that trip impossible and turned it into a quick trip to Hawaii (see

So Sunday I did the next best thing and rode down to Thai Town for an early New Year's Festival. The Buddhist New Year 2550 actually starts on April 13, but in Los Angeles they got an early start. The main street was blocked off for about a half mile and filled with vendors and food booths (yum). The Singha Beer Garden off one street was crowded all day, though I had to pass it up as I never drink and ride. Thai boxing was on center stage all day, and was a big hit, no pun intended.

In December the King will turn 80. This photo of him in an ice sculpture was just outside the beer garden.

A popular type of folk dancing,

The best part, though, was that there were smiling people everywhere, all speaking Thai and enjoying the festivities. There was very little of the traditional water-throwing that goes on during this celebration in Thailand, but the atmosphere was fun anyway.

At the end of the afternoon, with tired legs and feet, I sat down and waited for the finale: a group of students who came from Thailand just to demonstrate cultural dancing at this festival. They did a great job and capped the day nicely before I headed back over the mountains.

For years, my family had to look at a large velvet painting of a Thai dancer I bought in the Philippines. Here's the real thing.

This day the ride was not remarkable, but the destination was. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Plan? What Plan? We don't need no steenking plan!

Another last minute call. My friend Rob, who's younger than me but retired from the fire department, has forgotten that some of us have to work for a living. "Can you get tomorrow off?", he asked. "We're putting together a ride to Bass Lake and Yosemite, leaving at 9:30 tomorrow morning." I immediately remembered my friend Dr. Bob in Hawaii who would often call and say, "Let's go flying. I'll meet you at the airport in 20 minutes." So I'm used to last-minute calls, and actually like them. Rob continued, "We're going to stay at a cabin at the lake, spend all day Saturday in the park, then ride home on Sunday."

Bass Lake is one of my favorite spots anywhere. I did the Grizzly Century bicycle ride around that lake my first year here. "Sounds great, Rob, but I've got two cross-country flights scheduled for tomorrow. I doubt if I can even leave early. Can I meet you at the lake tomorrow night?"

And so another great ride started. I tried to hurry the cross-country flights a bit, skipping the usual great lunch at Livermore. One of the trainees had coincidentally planned his route over the foothills of the Sierras and near Bass Lake, so I got a bit of a preview. You can't save all that much time by skipping lunch, so it was still after 3 when I left work. I hurried home, packed up the dog to put him in jail for the weekend, and drove away from the SPCA a little after 4. By 5 I was packed up and on the road up to Bass Lake for a great weekend.

When I got up there the group had just ordered their dinner at a Mexican restaurant. My bike was the 7th, 4 riders from the DA's office, and 4 from the CAP. One guy was both, the link between the two groups. Three riders brought along their wives. It was a really fun group. Three of the bikes were Harleys. I was pleased to upset the balance with the 4th Japanese bike. Turns out my late invite came because another fireman was called out on a huge wildfire (still raging today) on the way to Los Angeles. He would've been on a Harley.

After dinner we went over to the cabin where there were plenty of beds for everyone. We planned to depart at 7:30 the next morning so everyone went to bed pretty early.

When I lead rides, I set a departure time an hour before I really want to get started, because my companions run on Hawaii time. This is Caleefornia, though, and we started out only 15 minutes late, in a cool-mountain-lake 52 degrees. It was beautiful.

Getting ready for the ride to breakfast.

We rode into Oakhurst for a great breakfast then headed up the hill and into Yosemite National Park.

The weather couldn't have been any better. After the cool morning start, the maximum for the day was probably around 80.

Parked by the tunnel

Ten of us

Framed half dome

Millions have posed here

Yosemite Valley

On the road to Tuolumne Meadow

From Glacier Point

One of the wives took loads of pictures from her back seat. I told her it made me feel like I was riding in the "Tour Day France" as she photographed us on the move. She's putting her photos on a CD-ROM for everybody, so I'll post a few when I get them.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

49 Revisited

Yesterday I had an opportunity to take the following pictures from my office window. A great conclusion to a great bike ride.

Bass Lake

Over 41 South to Oakhurst

Looking eastward up the Stanislaus River and Highway 108. Last year we lunched at Strawberry a few miles up this canyon. In the distance is Yosemite Park. To the right is a new wildfire we reported.

Stanislaus River/Hwy 108

Hwy 49 over DonPedro reservoir

This is the exciting section of 49 crossing the Merced River from the Mariposa side looking toward Coulterville.

Hwy 49 Over Merced River

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Three Days on Highway 49

Three Days on Hwy 49

Monday, June 06, 2005

Can there be TOO many twisties?

Day 3

Home at last, but the day didn’t start out well. I woke up at 3:30am with an extremely sore left forearm. I spent the next hour and a half worrying about how I was going to ride with such a sore arm, and how was I going to fly on Tuesday—my first Baron flight in about 2 years. I finally got back to sleep and woke up again at 8. It was pretty cool outside again but I was happy to take my time again anyway. I took some ibuprofen (glad I went back for it on Saturday) and waited for it to take effect. After a shower and a slow bike cleaning the arm felt useable so I saddled up and headed out for the final day at about 10:15.

I quickly learned that all I had to do was change the position of my elbow and my arm was like new. The pain wasn’t really from clutching but from all the tension in the climbs and descents. Conscious relaxation of the arm made me forget that it hurt at all.

The seventeen-mile run into Sonora wasn’t as great as I’d hoped. All the Sunday drivers and all the bikers were gone as I’d predicted, but they were replaced by Monday work vehicles, which were worse. Pickups and vans who totally owned the road and made no concession to the biker in the rear view mirror. Once past Sonora, however, the traffic disappeared. The stretch shared with Highway 120 was really fast and then from Chinese Camp (where one of the HWWs was riding so fast he couldn’t read the signs and made a wrong turn) all the way to Mariposa I had the road all to myself. The climb to Coulterville past the banks of green rock (obsidian?) was more beautiful than I remembered. You can see so much more if there is no traffic and you can set your own speed. Also I was wearing polarized sunglasses on Day 1, and the scenery just didn’t look as good.

I should have stopped at the quaint old hotel in Coulterville for a soda, but was on a roll and headed for the descent to the Merced River crossing. At the bottom I stopped to take a couple pictures from the other end, then crossed the river and made the great climb up toward Mariposa. I almost turned around and went back to Coulterville for one more run at this canyon, but had no confidence that my arm was going to continue to feel good.

The Low End of the Merced River Climb

When I got to Mariposa I stopped for a bite to eat and wandered around the Museum of Gold Mining. My first concession to actually learning something about the history along this fantastic highway. I had skipped Sutter’s Mill and Mark Twain’s house as well as a couple other significant locations, and would’ve skipped this one if I weren’t tired. Glad it was break time.

There was a post office right next to the museum. Flying below the US flag was a POW-MIA flag. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that flag on a federal building before.

POW MIA flag

The last segment of 49, back to Oakhurst, is pretty fast, and I stopped there again to take a couple photos, get some fuel, and say a proper goodbye to a great Highway. The HWWs will note Pete’s great breakfast place across the road from the sign.

The End of 49

I wanted to take the quickest route home from here without actually going through Fresno. Buuut, a couple of wrong turns put me too far into the city and another one put me back even farther. I finally got on track and came into Kingsburg from the north, and it only took me about 30 minutes longer than it should have. I dismounted downtown in “little Sweden” and walked around for about 30 minutes. Every restaurant was closed, just as they had been when Michele, Ed, and I wandered around this street on our way back from Yosemite. The rusk lady was still gone, so I left her some money and a note (again) and helped myself to another rusk. This street was so much like before (nearly abandoned), that I felt like I was in the twilight zone. I finally remounted, got some gas, and started the last leg home.

Highway 99. Ho hum. Held as close to 70 as I could all the way for a gas mileage test (46.7), and got home a little after 6:30. Weakened but not so painful arm, tired but not painful body. Loving the road and loving the bike (my touring sport cruiser) that carried me safely up and back. Once the temperature got into the 70s it stayed there. The leather jacket was comfortable again all day. It was a perfect day, even for the HWWs.

For the benefit of the HWWs, some equipment observations:

The add-on windshield—already proven to be an absolute necessity on a long ride.

Floorboards—very comfortable. Easy to change foot and leg position. I scraped each of them once while cornering, so they probably slow the bike down in turns, but that may be a good thing.

Sissy bar/luggage rack—looks good and even in the absence of a biker babe is functional for securing luggage.

Driver backrest—very comfortable. An absolute necessity. This old couch potato really beat up his body over 3 days. No back pain and no shoulder pain. And now I know how to avoid the forearm pain.

Gas pump nozzle thingy—holds the gas fume recovery collar back on the gas nozzle. Makes refueling a breeze. Bought it at the Motorcycle Madness a couple weeks ago. Almost left it on the pump once. Various versions available on the internet.

Throttle-rocker—dollar for dollar the best accessory I’ve found. Takes away the need to squeeze the throttle all day long. Right hand doesn’t get nearly as tired. Cruise control would probably be better, but costs 25 times as much—or more.

Metzler tires—terrific if they’re installed. I put the front one on a couple weeks ago. The new rear tire is on my garage floor and probably contributed (in its absence) to my rear end getting loose a couple times descending to the Merced River.

Hard leather luggage—looks good, but kind of hard to pack efficiently. Once I got it figured out, though, it was fine.

Total distance – exactly 750 miles
Saturday – 264.8
Sunday – 210.5
Monday – 274.7
Worst gas mileage – 41.7 (Bakersfield to Kingsburg, upwind freeway)
Best gas mileage – 48.3 (Kingsburg via Bass Lake to Mariposa)
Average for the trip – 46.2 mpg

On 49

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Up Hill, Down Vale and the Jumping Frog

Day 2

I now sit in Angels Camp at the Gold Country Inn. Apparently Mark Twain lived here for a few months in 1864. It was here he wrote The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. They still have the leaping frog competitions every year in May. Guess I missed it this year.

In the motel room I found a newspaper which explained the plethora of bikers on the road yesterday and last night. It was the 11th annual Sierra Hope Ride, a 50-mile ride starting in Modesto and ending with festivities and a rock concert in Sonora. It is a fundraiser for MDA. Many of the riders of course spent Saturday night filling up the motels on this section of 49. If this ride is on the same weekend next year, I may take part myself.

When I left Sonora at around 10 this morning, the temperature was only up to 51. It sounds cold, but with the sun shining brightly and the slower speeds demanded by the road, it was just perfect in a leather jacket. The highest the temperature got all day was about 78. Still comfy, even for the HWWs who demand precisely 73.6 degrees at all times.

Highway 49 north of Sonora is even better than south. The 17 miles from Sonora to Angels Camp is full of twisties and small hills designed specifically for the Magna wheelbase and center of gravity. I stopped at Angels Camp tonight just so that tomorrow morning I could start my last day of this trip with that stretch of road.

Rider's View

Moving farther north toward Auburn, there are more and more good twisties. There is a big descent into the canyon cut by the Mokelumne River. Next to the bridge crossing the river is the Moke River Lodge. Not a very inviting name, though I didn't notice any mokes or titas hanging around.

Progress was slower than expected. There were lots of people out for a Sunday drive, most of them clueless about the meaning of "turnout" or "slower traffic." Also there are lots of quaint little towns along this stretch of the road, all of them slowing traffic considerably. I didn't mind so much, as some of them looked exactly like a western movie set and were worth driving through slowly.

One of many great views

Just before Auburn there was yet another canyon, this one cut by the American River. A beautiful descent and an even better climb. Braking on these descents is a little tiring, but precise speed control on the climbs is a breeze. One observation: this Magna has a lower center of gravity and is much quieter than the old Magna. I think the shaft drive, the higher seat, and especially the noise contributed to its reputation as a concrete eater. This one is so smooth and quiet that its power is much more stealthy. And it corners with merely a thought.

American River

Just north of Auburn, and with 380 miles on the clock, I turned around and pointed the nose toward home. Heading back down to the American River was even better than my first descent into this canyon, and upon finishing the climb back up I was greeted by a sign announcing the town of Cool, population 200. Amazing! Just as you pop out of the canyon and all that's in your mind is, "Way cool," you are greeted by a sign saying, "Cool."

As I approached Angels Camp, my left forearm really started to hurt. Too many miles with too many gear changes. I hope it feels better tomorrow. I've got over 250 miles to go.

Today was a total of 210 miles, but virtually ALL twisties. I'm a pretty tired ol' biker tonight.