New Year Rides

By Graham K. Rogers

Before some folks had welcomed in the New year, I was off for my first ride of the year. I had intended to run into some quiet areas of Bangkok to take some photos, but half of Thailand turned up at the Grand palace that morning and by 0730, the roads there were blocked. I did a U-turn in front of a very patient bus driver, made an illegal left turn and headed back over the river for sanity.

At Talingchan I took the link to the new road and headed out towards the Ring Road. Quickly through the bottleneck of Bang Bua Tong (which may mean "Village of the Golden Lotus" or, if I get the pronunciation and tones wrong, "Village of the stomach ache") and out on the highway towards Suphan Buri. A nice run up this dual carriageway, which is one of the few roads in Thailand where lane discipline applies; and many of the drivers saw me in their mirrors.

The death toll for the first two days of the holiday period has reached 141, with motorcycles involved in 75% of accidents. The police have been really hammering the traffic stops (which also means mainly riders) but as ever, it is the wrong place, wrong time and wrong people getting stopped. Most accidents (according to the Bangkok Post report) occur between 6pm and midnight. I even heard one two nights ago, sitting at my computer just after 11pm: a roar of a pickup with an adapted exhaust (megaphone) system, a screech of tyres, and a dull thud, followed by a short silence. Within the next 30 minutes there was the constant sound of sirens as the rescue services arrived. The scene was easy to find the next morning: something like 30 metres of tyre marks, approaching a T-junction, crossing two lanes of a main road, through the steel barrier and into the canal. I know the road is well lit, and well signed -- the authorities were replacing the barrier and signs as I walked past--so how does someone misjudge in such a spectacular fashion?

I went past Suphan Buri, but witnessed a nice piece of driving from a guy ahead of me. Another motorist was dithering between lanes three and four, but really wanted to go into lane five and turn right, so was confusing everyone. I moved to the left lane and flashed my lights. The guy ahead of me was just about to do the same to get past the ditherer, having slowed right down (I had been following him for a few kms and this appeared consistent). He saw me and delayed any further move. I coasted past and gave him a wave. There are good ones out there among the bad.

I turned off about 20 kms further and headed for Dan Chedi -- this indicates a temple -- on a road that was new to me and rather interesting: fast, curvy and well-maintained as most roads are in Suphan Buri. Once past the temple, I had no choice really but to loop back to the main town. Once there I headed for the intersection town of U-Thong and then headed for Nakhon Pathom. I took a turning away from the homeward direction for a while and followed the banks of one of the large irrigation canals for a while.

I had intended to make my way down a turn off I had often passed, but before I got there, I found another intersection that looked just as interesting. I was lost. I had an inkling of where I was in relation to the outside World, but I was travelling in the middle of sugar cane plantations and not much else could be seen. The roads were interesting enough, with one or two broken patches and I managed to enjoy myself for half an hour before coming out at a village I was familiar with. The road from this village would take me to the Kanchanaburi - Bangkok highway and that would be enough as it was getting on for noon. I took the ride fairly easy as the road tends to fool people into overtaking when I want to use the same patch of road and I have seen a couple of fatalities here in the past. Sure enough, I had to brake and move away once or twice. I am certain that these motorists DO see riders, but deem that the riders are less important, are smaller and should therefore get out of the way. I know from experience that brinksmanship is not effective.

I had a green light at the main road and a clear road in front (for a while). As I entered the highway, I noticed how shiny the surface was. With the sugar harvest in full swing, and a lack of resurfacing in this province for a year or two, the road has far less grip than it should. Nevertheless, with no rain recently (or expected for months), the Michelins do a sterling job of getting me through the traffic I soon caught up with. Unlike Suphan Buri earlier, this road has ALL the cars, and a good deal else besides, in the outside lane, so nothing can overtake. Unless you go on the inside of course.

I picked them off one by one then reached the southern highway which was fairly light in the direction of Bangkok. Approaching Nakhon Pathom, there was another accident with a couple of vehicles in the centre divider. Going through Nakhon Pathom, it was clear that much more traffic was leaving Bangkok than entering as several sections of the other side of the central divide were totally stationary. I had made the right decision to go home early.

Friday 2 January 2004

When I announced I was planning to ride again on Friday, the houseboy/assistant said, "Me too." As this is a rarity, and a day out sometimes is good for him, I agreed. Thank the merciful gods this only happens once every few months. he is not the best pillion passenger and tries to take the corners for me.

I get up with no problems, but trying to prise a teen from his bedroom is not so easy. Nevertheless, we got going by about 7.15 am. I stopped for fuel at the local Jet station, and we were soon making good progresss towards Nakhon Pathom. There, I turned south onto a two lane road that heads for Samut Sakon and the southern route out of Bangkok. Long before reaching this, I turned off to the right and headed west again in the direction of Rachaburi.

My intention was, first to stick to country roads as much as I could -- a bike is better suited to this; and to take a detour round the south of Rachaburi to come out onto the main road (the one from Nakhon Pathom) and then head cross-country again.

No such luck. I have managed to find this route once, travelling in the opposite direction, but every time I take this way out to the sticks, I miss the turning: wherever it may be. Sure enough, once I saw the Rachaburi power station, I knew I was wrong again. We came out onto the highway just east of Rachaburi and took a slow run in the couple of kilometers to some roadworks at the city limits.

There is a major bottleneck here with four roads coming into the main road (from left and right) and between them a railway level crossing. Just past the level crossing and the roads, is a river bridge. Currently underway is a lot of road-widening and a bridge construction that starts before the roads and goes directly over the river. When finished, it will have the potential to stop a lot of time-wasting. Of course, it is a mess now.

I arrived at the mess in time to hear the gong of the crossing and see the barrier descend ahead of me. Once the train had passed, I made a slow left turn and headed in towards the city. I saw that the surface was wet, and was in no hurry, which probably saved me when suddenly the back wheel tried to overtake me. I gently steered into the slide, and it slid again; and just as I thought we were heading for disaster, the grip came back and, with much complaining from the pillion direction (justified), I got back on course, only to have a motorist pull out of the army camp from the right, directly in my path. The road was dry, the inside verge clear, so I took that and made my displeasure known. Having just saved one disaster (diesel?), I was in no mood for another.

At the railway station, I turned left under the bridge and within a few minutes we were heading out of the town again into an area of dense coconut plantations. I had to nudge the boy to start taking pictures -- I expect he was still wondering about the ealier incident -- but he took the camera out of the case and started snapping.

I rather like this area, which was where I was trying to come out into using the other route, which is cool and shaded, and hardly has a straigth longer than a hundred metres or so in the entire area. We played here for about 20 minutes or more.

Most of the riding is done in third gear, with an occasional snatch up into fourth, and a fair amount of work in second gear too. Between the coconut trees are banana trees, so the area is highly productive. This is only made possible by good irrigation, so along the way there are a number of canals and canal bridges.

And plenty of twisties. Bear in mind that the pictures were taken while we were on the move so forget the horizontal.

Sooner or later, all things come to an end, and we were back on a quiet main road for a while. This had its own charms and was fairly twisty too.

With the increased traffic came a dirty truck. I was not able to get past immediately, so had to back off and wait. One can see from the length of the shadows how early it was. By noon, we have a sun that is almost overhead for much of the year. At the end of the road, I took the right turn towards Pak Tho, which would bring us out onto the highway again.

At the highway, we went directly across the intersection and headed out to the country again, although I had to stop at the first service station: good coffee and the early morning cold meant that I urgently needed the bathroom.

After this unscheduled stop, we headed into the country, first past a small range of hills known as the Dragon's Teeth, and then in a huge circle, of close ot 100kms, back towards Rachaburi.

The road shown here -- and photographs never get the true feeling of a road and its curves -- is one that circles almost to the Burmese border, although in this area there is little risk from cross-border fighting that comes mainly from the drug trade. That is a problem a little further north, and more in the extreme north of Thailand.

What we have here is mainly low grade forest but because of the isolation, the proximity to the border, and its closeness to forest areas on both sides of the border, there is a variety of wild life here. The hill in the next image is of particular interest as, last in 2002, I was riding here on my R80g/s -- and this is a lane off the loop road -- when a leopard trotted across the road in front of me. I come back regularly, camera at the ready, but never again have I had the good fortune to see one of these cats in the wild.

The whole area can be seen from a temple built at the top of a hill that overlooks the valley. What can be seen is how widespread agriculture is in once wild areas. I see both the good and the negatives in this. What can also be seen in the pictures (although some are not so good because of haze), are some fair examples of chiarascuro -- the alternative light and dark regions in an image as you approach the horizon. Renaissance painters made good use of this in their work.

The last photograph (above) and the next two, look west, and that is in the direction of Burma, although I have no real idea of just how far it is from here.

We left the temple and back onto the loop road. At the end of the village, the local police wqere checking everything that moved, so I slowed right down and made ready to stop. The difference between bangkok police and country police is like chalk and cheese. A smile and a wave, and we accelerated up the hill towards Chombung where I intended to have a break.

The area of Chombung is dominated by a large, wooded hill; and that hill is dominated by monkeys. I often stop at the open-air restaurants here, but as I approached, I saw that the entrance was barred and all vehicles were directed to a car park. I went round the back where it was still open and rode through the park only to find that the restaurants had gone too. For years, the people running these places had had battles with the monkeys -- arch-thieves of the animal kingdom. Perhaps the monkeys had won.

I took a lane out of the park and through into the town itself -- really just one long, wide street, with a teachers' college at the end -- and headed for Rachaburi. About tne kilometers down this road I turned off to the left for a country road that would bring me out at the edge of Kanchanaburi province. Mainly flat to begin with, there are some rocky outcrops as the road winds northwards.

I made my way to Dammakhamtia by way of lots of lanes and headed up into the hills closer to the border. We were, of course, not the only road users.

I was getting really hungry, and after a stop at a temple in the middle of nowhere, which was having a huge monumental arch built, we passed a couple of places which the boy said were too full, and then a couple more that were too empty; until I saw a wooden shop with a couple of tables and a couple of customers. All they had was bowls of noodles, but I would have eaten anything. Perhaps I did.

The broth with the noodles was dark and rich and the houseboy tells me it was full of pig's blood. He did not enjoy it, I did. He was also reacting from the company: two of the three customers were drunk. The third, a huge man, was queitly spoken and polite. He was obviously reining in the others. Bless him. Before leaving, I grabbed the camera and took a shot of bike in front of the shop, with the boy -- cigarette dangling from his mouth -- and the customers, whom I suspect were not long this side of consciousness.

After this, the photographs ceased. This is a shame as we still had a lot of miles to cover. After lunch the road was still climbing for another 30 kms or so, and then we passed the first of the army outposts. It is here that there are risks from across the border, which itself is still a fair distance away. We took one side trip down into a valley I found a couple of years back: the road ends in a track but I managed to get along it once with the R80g/s: it comes (40 kms away) out where we had already been before Chumbong: we had just travelled a couple of hours in a huge circle to get here.

Then, over the hills and onto another range. Across here brings us out to what appears to be a dead end: two barriers and armed soldiers -- with broad smiles -- prevent any further access. I know that the border is just 7 kms away from here; and this time, as we sat and had a drink, I noticed a sign that said this was part of a project to link Kanchanaburi and Tovoey in Burma. I had heard of this project but had not realised exactly where it came out. Until one gets a permit from the Interior Ministry, there is no way those soldiers will lift that barrier.

The houseboy began to grumble. His mobile phone was not getting any signal and his stomach was complaining about the lunch. Mine was not, although I will keep in mind what he said about the pig's blood. Parasites are not unknown here but the drugs to fix them are easy to get in any pharmacy.

I hit the road back over the hills and then took the road back to the town of Lamsai where we turned right and later joined a main road to Kanchanaburi. We reached the Bangkok side of Kanchanaburi at 1355 and the houseboy was still grumbling, especially when I estimated 90 minutes for Bangkok as traffic was quite heavy. I did get lucky with some sets of traffic lights. They were all red. I could filter through, leaving the road ahead free of traffic. this added a risk though: empty roads means that drivers ahead do not expect a fast rider. I had to be wary when a bus pulled out to overtake a car as I was coming up; and then a Mercedes-Benz pulled out of the centre into my path. All part of a normal day's riding here.

By 1430 we were at Bang Phong (the main railway junction for the south, and the location of a lot of light industry these days), where I took on the third tank of fuel for the day. As I came out, I picked up speed on the hard shoulder and was about to filter in, when a Mitsubishi from Rachanburi forced me to continue a little further along than I had intended. No real problem; but then he tried to prevent me going past and when I had, accelerated so he was a little too close to the rear of the bike. Nothing for it: down to 3rd gear and open the taps. Leave the problem behind. I did not see him again.

After the comparatively heavy traffic on the Kanchanaburi road, the highway was quiet. There were short lines at the traffic lights in Nakhon Pathom, and the run home was drama free even on the section near Nakhon Chaisri. It was the usual procedure there: outside two lanes full, left lane completely empty. I came up behind a Highway Police car just moving off from the hard shoulder and, although he was about to pull over back to the left, waved me through.

I arrived outside the door at 1415, a little ahead of the estimate. I slept really well Friday night.

Sunday 4 January 2004

I was really in two minds about whether to ride or not, this being the last day of the holiday period in Thailand, and with all the expected problems of drivers and riders returning to their homes, why put oneself at risk? The toll was shown this morning at 800 dead: 80% riders. But we are not talking about riders with experience (and 50% of these were not riders with helmets either). An excellent example occurred as I was taking the houseboy to his classes this mornng (this is part of the deal -- I pay for education).

We came along a section of three lane road. To the right is a u-turn bridge: these are being constructed in some places where the accidents from traffic making turns has caused accidents. Who in their right mind would pull out in front of traffic on a main road? Answer: thousands. On one stretch of road I used to go to a part-time teaching job, I would expect to see 3 or 4 a week. Going to work, I expect to avoid one a day.

As we approached, a rider with pillion came off the bridge and tried to go from the right side to the left side -- crossing three lanes -- at exactly the same time that I wanted the same piece of road. Sigh. The way he hung back after my obvious annoyance suggested he may have got the message. Perhaps next time he will make doubly certain.

I dropped the boy off at the temple school and headed for the ring road. Instead of running up to Bang Bua Tong again, I turned off at the first village, packed with huhndreds of people going to one of the longest markets in the area: the whole village seems to be on sale. With the winding roads, packed with cars, pedestrians and small motorcycles, it took me a few minutes to thread my way through. Then I was runing parallel to the western highway, but a few kilometres to the north.

To the south of the highway, near my home, much of the area is given over to horticulture: plants, vegetables, fruit. This area, to the north, is even richer and there is much less traffic. The roads also wind a lot more but I was deliberately taking it slowly and enjoying the cool early morning.

The end of the road comes out at Salaya, where I work, but I turned right and went out towards the rice fields and the top end of Nakhon Pathom province. The road here has been considerably widened in recent months, and this was partly the cause of the death of a high government official recently. A truck driver thought he had room to pull out when a car in front turned left with little warning, but there was a Mercedes-Benz in the way. That was the truck driver's story anyway.

I never follow the road through to its end, somewhere near a link to Pathum Thani, but always turn off into a twisty lane -- much of which has a broken surface, just for the quietness and beauty. This time, however, I did make a turn off the quiet road onto an even quieter lane, where I cruised along at a couple of thousand rpm, in no hurry at all.

I was pleased to see that this brought me out at an intersection near Nakhon Chaisri, so I actually solved two mystery roads in one go. Not that I can remember all that well where I went.

Back on familiar roads, I made my way cross country in the general direction of Kanchanaburi, but turned off onto a canal road which I followed for a half-hour or so.

Once on the main road, I stopped for fuel and a drink, then headed cross-country again in a big loop back towards the main road. At about 1130, I decided it was time for lunch, so hit the highway and made my way into Nakhon Pathom.

I had not been here -- into the city itself -- for several months, and as soon as I stopped at my usual parking spot, the guys who work the motorcycle taxi queue here were full of questions. While talking, they ordered me a bowl of kiaow tiaow bet (noodles with duck) from the girls in the temple grounds. The bowl, chopsticks, a bottle of Coke all being passed through the fence. I sat down at the side of the road, in the town center square and ate. The duck here is particularly good.

I usually sit in the local park after lunch and do the crossword, but the park is decked out as if it were a huge party and there were restrictions on where to go and where to sit. I did most of the crossword at the side of a small boating lake but the whole area -- still celebrating the New Year period -- looked something like the mother of the bride after to many gins. It will be OK after a good night's sleep and a shower.

I thought that, I would like to try and find a small lane that I knew would take me back to the area I had started in this morning, so made my way through the back streets. As there is so much agriculture in the area, almost the whole of Nakhon Pathom's central area is given over to sales of produce from early morning to late at night. And in the evenings, canal-side restaurants abound. Since I had last been here, one or two changes in traffic directions had occurred and some of the shortcuts I knew have now gone. I ended up at the wrong intersection, and despite three attempts to find the lane I wanted, ended up finding a completely new route that brought me out several miles from where I expected. It also made me realie that the area has far more roads than I had realised -- the potential for riding for hours and getting nowhere is enormous.

In the end, I followed the route into Salaya that I had taken this morning going out along the newly widened country lane. I had just turned onto this road, when I saw the rarity of a large bike ahead of me, going quite slowly. As I got closer, although it had only one rear case, I recognised the unmistakable rear pipe of a BMW R-series. Going past, I saw that the rider was a westerner and pulled onto the hard shoulder. He pulled up behind. It was actually an R1150GS with a front Givi screen. The rider was a Frenchman with impeccable English and had been living in Thailand for a few years. We exchanged cards and e-mail addresses. He is off to Phuket to work in a major hotel soon: that is the second hotel person I know down there.

Traffic was fairly thick along this country road but was spaced out perfectly for the K to make good progress. Like Friday, when traffic lights had enabled me to coast to the front and get the jump on everyone, as I came over the canal bridge at Salaya, the traffic was stationary, waiting for a train to pass the level crossing. I went to the front in time for the gates to open. Within ten minutes, I was home and in the shower. It has become slightly hotter the last couple of days.

I had ridden all day with hardly any mileage on major roads. This had been deliberate as I wanted to avoid situations where there was thick traffic -- congestion is OK: at zero kph they cannot hurt you. Fast moving dense traffic seems to be a risk, to me. As I walked up to the shops to buy food for the evening meal, I looked across to the highway. Empty. Maybe they all came back yesterday?

© Graham K. Rogers
Bangkok: January 2004

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