by Graham Rogers
Three Capitals Ride, Part 1
I am stretching this a bit by calling my recent Bangkok (Thailand) to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) run *three* capitals, but I did stay in a southern Thai town called Songkhla (coming and going) and that was apparently a capital of some ancient kingdom centuries ago. Anyway, Three Capitals sounds much better.
The reason for the ride (if reason there has to be) was an overdue service. And why undertake a 3,000 kms round trip to Malaysia when BMW AG have provided me with a local agent and just a 30kms round trip? Anyone who had read of my earlier dealings with the local people; or who had read of my attempts to fix (at great cost) a heat-related problem with the utter lack of knowledge on the part of the local people–they do not even have a diagnostics computer–would understand.
Having experienced their electrical prowess, there was no way I wanted to let them loose on transmission and clutch lubrication: no telling where that would end.
I had a week off from teaching owing to Thai university sports and my head of department had no objections, so I planned to leave early morning Saturday 11 January. A few days before I changed the oil and exactly at 0700, not long after the sun came up, I pulled out of the driveway and hit the road.
This is a tropical country. My garden has several banana trees producing free fruit and providing shade, but at this time of the year, especially as I have been here for almost ten years now, I do feel the cold just a little. You in Europe’s cold snap would be sweating; but by 0710 I was wondering why I had not put on a sweater to go with the two pairs of gloves, the balaclava and the heavy jacket; while by 0800 I was forced into a stop at a service station to empty my bladder. It soon got warm after that.
After clearing the first provincial capital of Nakhon Pathom–always a bottleneck–the traffic eases as half goes to the south and half goes up to Kanchanaburi (Bridge on the River Kwai). In any case, there was not much moving just yet. I began to get into a rhythm and for the second hour tried to maintain about 120-130 kph. A fuel stop and a drink came after the first 280 kms and then we were well clear of problems.
While a couple of years ago, there were roadworks almost all the way to the south, several stretches of dual carriageway have now been opened and the first 450 kms out of Bangkok is easy, apart from the Thai habit of refusing to budge out of the fast lane. This is easily solved. Motorcycles use the empty inside lane and disappear over the horizon.
At the narrowest part of Thailand, on the Isthmus of Kra, are two provincial capitals–Prachuab Kirikhan and Chumpon. It is between these that the dual carriageway abruptly ends and the problems begin. The road surface is pitted, potholed, damaged, uneven. Almost the entire 150 kms to the southern city of Surat Thani is like this; while alongside the road a new dual-carriageway is being built. Add to this the other Thai habit of flashing lights and beginning to overtake no matter what is coming in the opposite direction, plus a suicidal desire not to be overtaken and one needs to concentrate 100% to avoid accidents. Even so, I have had several close calls on other trips to the south. This one seemed a little worse.
Near Chumphon it began to rain. Although Bangkok, in Thailand’s Central Plain had seen the end of the rainy season a couple of months earlier, the rains are still falling, especially to the south. It always seems to rain in Chumphon anyway. A quick stop found the rain gear and I put it on for the next couple of hundred kilometers. Of course, almost as soon as I had donned the suit, the rain stopped, but the tarmac was damp for a while and the sun had not yet broken through the clouds, so I thought it prudent to keep going. I was also making quite good time.
That stopped at Surat Thani just outside the Thai Royal Air Force base. It was National Children’s Day and the services always lay something on. I got to the gates just as all the kids were being sent home and the local police stopped everything on the highway for about 15 minutes to allow almost the entire campus to empty. Not only was I stationary, but to make any progress, I had to get past hundreds of cars and small trucks.
At Surat Thani the road splits. Straight on is the main highway for the south, while to the left is Surat Thani, the ferries for the holiday island of Koh Samui, and the coast road to Nakhon Sri Thammarat and Songkhla. For once I did the entire stretch of this part without rain, although this perfection was spoiled by discovering yet more roadworks–the entire surface stripped for about 20 kms–again reducing speed.
Leaving the roadworks behind, the road climbs gently while in the distance you can see mountains rising to the east and west. The south of Thailand is much greener than the central area, and so the road, curving gently, climbing, and with little traffic, is one of my favourite rides. After the first hilly section, the roads flatten out and have wide grassy verges in many parts. There are good straight stretches and plenty of fast curves making this a really enjoyable ride. I knew that after Nakhon Sri Thammarat there would be some more of the same.
On previous trips I had always stopped overnight at NST. I left Bangkok earlier this time, and made excellent speed. I was passing through at about 1530 rather than coasting in after 2000; and the sun was still shining. When I first came to this city, nine years ago, they had just opened a single track bypass. The taxis would exit the city using this route and you could see the huge pagoda of the local temple. As this came into sight, the taxi drivers would take their hands from the wheel, wai (the Asian bringing hands together as a greeting), run their hands through their hair (to get the benefit of their holy gesture directly to the most important part of the body) and then carry on. For westerners unused to such behaviour, this is quite a shock. For those drivers less brave, sounding the horn is an acceptable compromise.
Now, however, the fields and the view have disappeared. What was an open road is congested. What was green has disappeared under a shopping mall, service stations a new hotel and factory sites. But who is to deny these people access to new found wealth? The city itself is still basically untouched; and the temple (allegedly with a relic of the Buddha) still a holy place. Directly across the road from the main temple is a smaller one with an unusual “starving Buddha” statue visible from the road. Nakhon Sri Thammarat also has one of the best provincial museums in Thailand.
This time the only stop was to take on fuel for the last leg of the first day. From NST the road begins like the road before, with fast curves and sensible straight stretches, then turns for the coast and crosses a small range of hills. Close to the sea is perhaps the worst stretch of this southern section. For mile after mile, the road is fairly straight and a little bumpy, while on either side are hundreds of shrimp farms poisoning the land and the water. A few kilometers to the west is Songkhla lake, a huge freshwater lake with hundred of unique species of birds, fish and reptiles, as well as its own breed of dolphin. A couple of hundred metres to the east was one of the best shorelines in this part of Asia: a couple of hundred kilometers of clean sand, edged by palms, with the occasional wooden fishing boat. Such is progress. Along with this mess–really just restricted to a few hundred metres width but about 40 kms along the main road, comes a fairly low standard of driving. The main modes of transport here are the pickup truck and the small 2-stroke motorcycle. Mirrors are a rarely-used option.
After this blot, the road improves back to the fast curves with some quite long straights until the last few kilometers approaching Songkhla where, again, some light industrial development has increased the traffic and reduced the trees. Just before Songkhla there is a choice of road: I can turn right to cross the lake by the Prem Tinsulanonda Bridges (Prem was a General who became Prime Minister and ran the country through the 80s), or continue down the hill to the narrowest part of the Lake–just where it reaches the sea–and cross to the town on the ferry. I prefer this route which is shorter but which can take longer if there is much traffic. Fortunately motorcycles go to the front and there is little delay for us. I checked my watch on the ferry and the 950 kms had taken me 10 hours and 25 minutes: an average of 91kph.
Once across the water, a short trip through the small dock area–mainly fishing boats–gets me to the town and to a friend’s boarding house. He has just rented some new premises where I am to stay: a penthouse with a few of the lake.
Later, after a shower and watching the sun go down across the lake, I rode along to the sea front. In the distance you can see the winking lights of fishing boats, while the sky is cleat and star-studded. With a stiff breeze the surf was up a bit and for the second time that day I felt cool.
Three Capitals Ride, Part 2
Having arrived in Songkhla I had a day before going to Malaysia. One job–a pleasant task–was to visit President Peter who lives in Had Yai, the commercial heart of the province. Peter has a K100 and has been a great help over the last few months–even riding halfway to Bangkok to meet me and bring up a shock-absorber that another friend of his had carried from Singapore. Peter was out riding and when he got back, some business associates had come a-calling, so we postponed our meeting until that night. In the meantime, I got my boots repaired by a cobbler under a bridge. The same guy has been repairing my shoes for almost ten years and always manages to save shoes that, in the West, would have been consigned to the trash.
Songkhla is one of my favourite places. Surrounded on three sides by water–the lake and the sea–it is much cooler than the surrounding countryside. I find the people much nicer too. I lived here for two years and love my brief holidays. It has grown relatively slowly compared with the rest of Thailand–certainly when compared with the expansion of Bangkok–and retains its charm for me. No traffic problems, no pollution, and the police here are not looking to increase their personal incomes. This time, the local officers were surprisingly active as they had finally decided to enforce the helmet law some two years after it was brought in. This being Thailand, there is a let out and while the rider needs a helmet, passengers do not.
In the evening Peter rode over from Had Yai with his pretty wife and we had a meal in one of the local bars cater to westerners–mainly oil workers. Ten years ago there was one bar–the Smile Bar–now there is a whole parade. The sight of two BMWs parked outside “The Skillet” was certainly unusual, although I let the side down a bit with the K75 habit of belching out white smoke on startup.
Peter and I met the next morning on the forecourt of a service station in Had Yai on the main road to the border at Sadao. As he does the trip regularly, he brought along all the papers I would need and I filled them out before we set out. Unfortunately he was not coming with me–some people have to work after all–but he would see me through the border.
The ride to Sadao was fairly easy as it is all dual-carriageway. As we arrived Peter pointed to where I had to go and parked his bike up just before Immigration then walked over to where I was. Dealing with Immigration was easy and something I have done several times; the new one for me was Customs. I had to let them know that the bike was being temporarily exported–not that they won’t let me out, but to avoid problems bringing it back in.
Peter knew the ladies working at Customs and so there was a fair amount of good-natured badinage. Ten minutes and I was on my way. There was just one more stop, at the Duty-Free area. Not that I wanted cigarettes or booze; it was here that I had to buy insurance that would cover me while I was in Malaysia. Once I had changed some money this was a job of about 15 minutes (and $10) and then it was on to the Malaysian side.
Immigration, Police (who wanted a chat about the Shoei helmet I was using) and then a cursory examination by Customs was all over in a couple of minutes and the road was there. Immediately differences were obvious: the road surface was much better; and the surroundings looked tidier than in Thailand; there was not much traffic either.
Peter had told me that speed limits were enforced by the police and so I kept it down to begin with to the indicated limit of 90 kph. This lasted for a few kilometers and then it was up to the maximum of 110kph. I stole a few and held about 120kph where I could.
I had a small problem at the first toll. “You should be over there,” said the polite young lady as I was dipping my hand into my pocket for money. She indicated a lane to the side which I had missed. When I had backed up and turned round, sure enough, it was clearly signed for motorcycles but seemed to leave the motorway. The small track went round the back of a building and then looped back. This (or something similar) occurred at every toll gate and for a small delay–sometimes only a second or two–motorcycles got to use the road for free.
While the northern part of Malaysia was flat and similar to parts of Thailand, the central part was hilly as we approached the Cameron Highlands. This sounds beautifully romantic and is obviously a reminder of Malaysia’s colonial past. The area is certainly beautiful and is the centre of the tea-growing area–I have some downstairs. It also, of course, is far more interesting riding hills and curves than boring straights. And with these hills I found another interesting point, the better power-weight ratio of the bike meant that I was cruising past lots of cars that were puffing up the slopes, much to the annoyance of some of them.
In the hills the first clouds appeared and soon ahead of me I could see wet roads. I stopped and put on the plastic gear before getting totally soaked and made my way south. I had missed one service area and was horrified to find that the information boards had none indicated: I could rest, I could eat, I could visit the bathroom; but it was over 100 kms before I could buy more fuel. I had serious thoughts about leaving the motorway but at none of the exits was there any evidence of service stations nearby. In the end, I had a reading of 316 kms by the time I took on fuel. Once I had done this, the service stations came thick and fast.
While refuelling, I calculated the times of the journey and, with an hour’s time difference, I would not be arriving at Kuala Lumpur until 5 pm local time, so I decided to speed up just a bit, all to no avail. Coming down the hills into the Klang Valley (the river Klang runs through KL, a city founded on tin mining and out towards the sea on the western coast) the traffic got much heavier as people began to go home, it started to rain heavily, and, of course, I got totally lost.
Lost in a city you have never been to before, in the pouring rain is no joke; and it was compounded by the heavy traffic. The drivers were more forgiving than I realised as, in a similar way to the lanes at the toll gates, the major roads in KL have motorcycle tracks and I was on the main road. Not one motorist hooted or indicated that I was wrong. They probably just thought I was a crazy Thai who had got lost. Almost right.
Even with directions, by the time I had found Pettaling Jaya–a city that joins the western side of Kuala Lumpur–it was dark and I was still getting soaked. The road where the BMW workshop was located was not easily found–I will be able to go straight there next time–and when I did locate it, there was just one guy working in the office. Although Peter had phoned ahead, Suffein (the bike man) had long since gone home; and who can blame him.
The office worker directed me to a hotel nearby but when I dripped across the marble floor the only room they had was a suite at about 300 RM Malaysian Ringits ($120) and that–10% of my monthly income here–was above my budget. Another hotel in the town at 130 RM was more to my pocket and I booked in for one night. That shower never felt so good and I slept like a top.
Early the next morning I was in the workshop waiting for Suffein. Peter had told me what a nice guy he was, and this is so. Short and stocky, he seems to have a permanent smile. He immediately came over and we started talking bikes. In five minutes any worries I might have had–especially after my dealings with the mechanics who carry the BMW name in Bangkok–were gone. He took me back to the hotel and pronounced the bike as feeling OK, with a little stickiness in the clutch. As I had no idea when the splines had last been lubricated, I knew this was one aspect that was to be covered.
The next day Suffein called me up and asked me to wait at the front of the hotel, there was something he wanted me to see. I was suitably impressed when he turned up on a silver R1100RS which he obviously knew how to handle, getting through the traffic there in a way that had me drawing in my knees.
At the workshop, among of collection of Ks and Rs was my stripped down bike. Well, the clutch was a little worn but the splines were fine and the clutch plate would last until the next time. BUT. . . “I really don’t understand what they were doing” he said, indicating the electrical “modifications” that the Bangkok people had tried: cut here, cut there, snip, snip. The new ICU that I had had sent out from Britain was not working properly and while Bangkok thought the problem was a relay, the relay functioned perfectly with a ICU from another bike. It just shows you what you can do with the right equipment; for example, the diagnostics computer which Bangkok does not have, despite a fleet of police K100s. If you detect a slightly sour note here, you are right.
Suffein put it back as best he could and on my next trip I will take the old ICU to see if that works. If not, I will have to buy another.
When I finally picked it up on Thursday afternoon, it sounded sweeter than I had ever heard it before. I paid the bill–just under $280–and Suffein grabbed his helmet as he was going to show me the way to the motorway–ten minutes instead of over 2 hours. He rode out on that R1100 again and I wondered if something like that ought to be my next bike.
Once on the motorway I felt my way round the bike and its new performance: the engine was far more responsive and smooth; while the handling was also improved as Suffein had checked the pressures in the front forks. It was 4 pm, or 3 pm Thai time, and I had a journey of about 4 or 5 hours ahead of me. This time I kept the speed up a little higher and made 130 kph where I could. Although there were clouds behind me as I left the Klang Valley, ahead was clear and it was sunshine all the way. Late afternoon was cool–indeed one or two of the valleys and gorges that the road passes through were cold–and this made riding comfortable.
By the time I reached the border it had been dark for an hour and the last 50 kms were spoiled by the excess of insects: a problem at this time of day in these areas. A damp rag constantly applied is about the only remedy apart from stopping.
Leaving Malaysia was problem free. The Thai side was a little more delaying but nothing was unexpected as visas and other papers were all in order. At the Customs post, while they were checking my document against the computer, one of the officers came up and asked for my friend. It was the same officer who had seen me out and he was asking after Peter whom he knew.
Once through the border, it was a swift run back through Had Yai and on to Songkhla where I arrived at 8:30pm. Noticeable was the difference in driving: lane discipline especially.
Malays do, Thais don’t.
Three Capitals Ride, Part 3
Back in Songkhla I decided on a day doing nothing before returning north to Bangkok. If I left the morning after my return from Malaysia I would still be a bit tired for the long trip, and leaving it to Sunday would mean that I would have to face the usual congestion as half of Bangkok returned before the working week. Monday? Having taken the week as an unofficial leave under the good graces of my boss, I did not think missing the start of the week would be a good idea even if I was not teaching. That meant Saturday.
But Friday in Songkhla was a bonus. Henk prepared breakfast at his bar in town near the docks. It was substantial–toast with fried eggs laid on top of slices of cheese; more toast to follow with fresh butter and marmalade; and, Henk being Dutch, plenty of hot coffee: fresh and not out of a jar. By the time this was over and we had all chatted for an hour or so half the morning was gone. I had extended this by crossing the road to the local pharmacy where Margaret, an Irish lady who runs the place with her husband Wirat, gossipped with me and then came over to the bar for more.
I cleaned the bike, or at least got the worst of the mass of insects off of the front of the BMW and then went for a ride round the town. Despite it being a small port, there are some beautiful wooded areas within the town’s limits including two hills overlooking the sea. On the top of one is a chedi–a pagoda–that can be seen for miles and at night is lit up. On the seward side after dark there is also a high-powered beam for shipping. The other hill was once the site of a house and has now been landscaped. I used to come here to read when I lived in Songkhla and did the same this day, riding to the top by one of two lanes.
Between the two hills runs a road from the town out to the ferry. At weekends, fishermen come to eat the spicy papaya salad–som tam–drink rice whisky and relax. The hills are also home to two packs of wild green monkeys that will pick your pockets if they sense you have food in them. Trying to feed them apples one by one from a bag is impossible as they insist on the bag and first come, first served.
In the late afternoon when the breeze began to pick up I left the hill and rode along the beach road. Sailors from the nearby Navy bases, along with locals can be seen jogging as it gets cooler; while students and families come down to promenade, drink beer and eat barbecued chicken or sea food. While I was chatting to a young Kentuckian I knew, a group of youngsters shouted across their enthusiasm about the bike, so I took it across and we chatted until the sun went down. While there, a large Kawasaki and a Honda went past with that lovely four-cylinder growling whisper.
During the night I woke to find that it was raining. Later, as the sky lightened from the east I could see that wave after wave of grey clouds were queuing up south of Songkhla, crossing the lake and then following the coast northwards. By the time I was ready to get out of bed I decided that I would take the inland route.
Henk’s breakfasts do not begin until a little after 0800, so I got all packed and ready to roll before leaving the apartment. There was a little weak sun by then, but I knew that somewhere along the road home I would get a soaking: I have ever once done this journey without rain somewhere. Instead of under the seat, I put my waterproofs in the bag strapped behind me. At least when I did have to get them out, it would be quick enough to save me a total soaking.
Henk made the others wait for their coffee while he got me fed; and I settled up with him for the two nights and the breakfasts. At 0900 I lit the fuse and said “au revoir”. Rather than go through the town, I cut across to the seashore and followed the coast road until it ends at a fishing village then rejoins the main road. This does save time and is far more an attractive way to start a journey.
Leaving Songkhla I had to pass the campus of Srinakharinwirot university where I had first worked in Thailand some ten years ago. No regrets about leaving there, just about leaving Songkhla. The road past the campus then was two lane but now it is dual-carriageway; and while there were a few single-storey houses set back from the road, now there are apartments and hotels as well as several more shops. Often there is what a friend called “ribbon development” here in Thailand: the areas near the roads get built up while a few hundred metres back there is still open country. It is like that where I live on the edge of Bangkok.
A new road has been built that by-passes Had Yai–the commercial capital of this province–and I took this. I used it first about three years ago and, so far, there is only development in one area close to the town. I had an early reminder that I was no longer in Malaysia when a truck pulled out in front of me but traffic here is less dense and I made good progress.
Near the end of the road, where it joins the main north-south highway, I took on fuel. There is always a certain incredulousness when I draw up alongside the “unleaded” pump; and in the past when I bought oil for my Yamaha, an attendant took it away and gave me 2-stroke oil instead, refusing to believe that I really did want the same stuff that goes in cars. This time I also had to contend with the usual ritual of not getting the tank full to overflowing: somewhere near the top is fine; but when you say, Stop, the attendant always tries to squeeze in another drop or two, often spilling it over the tank to my annoyance.
I turned right onto Highway 4 and began to settle into a rhythm. the last time I used this road it was still under construction much like the road south from Bangkok. A fair amount of progress has been made but as the clouds began to thicken, so the roadworks began near Patthalung. it is here that the Highway 4 goes towards the west coast–the Andaman Sea–and the cities of Trang, Krabi (see the Bond movie “Goldfinger”) Phangnga and Ranong. The road I was on becomes Highway 41 for over 300 kms to Chumphon where the two rejoin.
As the surface began to change from dry through damp I stopped just beside a construction site. By the time I had changed the road was covered in mud from a truck that pulled out. It was orange from the deposits of several trucks for quite a distance. My boots, bike and helmet were all similarly coloured.
At the first fuel stop I calculated I had gone about 260 kms in just over 3 hours. The average was slightly low, but with the rain–stopped by now–the traffic and the lack of dual-carriageway I had plenty of scope for improvement. Traffic was lighter now and as the road surface dried, I began to pick up speed, making better progress until I was near Surat Thani. Now I was back on the same road I had travelled on the way down and unlikely to make the best of speed until clear of Chumphon and the beginning of the dual carriageway.
The only police I saw on this single lane stretch were concentrating on trucks overtaking on double lines. As the lines are now badly faded I felt a bit sorry for the miscreants, but this was balanced by the number of trucks (and cars) that simply flash and pull out to pass, no matter what is coming in the opposite direction. As that was me on more than a dozen occasions–and I had experienced this several times before–I became adept at judging when to pull over or stop.
Near Chumphon there was a small hold up of traffic bearing the unmistakable signs of an accident. To the left was a white pick up truck facing south, in the road was glass, plastic and the odd piece of metal. And buffalo shit. Lots of it. I tiptoed past: partly because of the risk of a slide on this material; but also because if I had gone at anything more than a walking pace, I would probably pick some up and it could have stayed with me for days. The buffalo? Nowhere in sight. Either it had done the deed and ran; or it was already being cut up for a village barbecue.
As I reached the dual carriageway, traffic was light and the sun was beginning to show signs of dropping towards the horizon. I had removed the wet weather gear at the last fuel stop and felt cool. The K75 was running superbly. Once on this section, I held 130 kph for a while and then, sweet as a nut, I opened the taps a little more and ran for the next couple of hours at 140 where possible. There was a little vibration but the engine and suspension, and the rider, were well within their limits.
Once past Cha Am and Hua Hin traffic always gets heavier until the main road splits near Petchaburi and much of the volume heads off this way for the southern entrance to Bangkok. I stay on the road through Ratchaburi and Nakhon Pathom. By the time I reached the latter it was dark and I found that the lights on the newest 5-lane stretch were not working. As traffic in this area is fairly heavy, and has the big city habit of using the outside lane only–Thai lane discipline is awful–my pace slowed. But then I was almost home.
I got to the gate 10 hours after I left Songkhla. The dogs went wild. The houseboy, who had stayed while I was away instead of going home organised rice while I showered and had a shave. A bit stiff. I slept like a top.
The journey to Kuala Lumpur and back, via Songkhla, had added about 3,000 kms to the bike. Although I had basically gone for a service–not trusting BMW’s local agent–the ride itself had been far more enjoyable than I expected. With a bike like this, long-distance touring on two wheels is reliable and fun.
Trying to describe stretches of road is tedious for the reader, so I have tried to write about odd things, special things that were seen. what I cannot do is to describe what every rider knows: the feelings of exhiliration and joy when the bike is running well, when you take a corner exactly right, when an overtake works perfectly. These are, almost, private things although we have all shared such moments.
Now Suffein tells me he has to go to Singapore in April for a course on the new 1200, so if I aim for the end of March for my next service……
Graham K. Rogers