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Motorized Wheeling

While the Red Shirts were doing their best to bring the city of Bangkok to its knees, Dane, Scott and I had been enjoying the finer points of the expatriate lifestyle. And time was flying. Life was good. Life was easy. And, thanks to Steve, may his beard grow ever longer, even somewhat affordable. However, our list of things to see in Thailand was growing shorter at an almost imperceptible pace. Meanwhile, Dane Weschler had been elaborating at great length about his love for the north of Siam, about his times in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, the beauty of that part of the country, and its magnificent food.

“This is nothing,” Dane would explain to us over a steaming bowl of succulent curried noodles. “The Khao Soi in Chiang Rai will blow this out of the water.” All that aside, despite the strange time warp that was Bangkok, we were beginning to near the end of our time in the country. And we were well overdue for some more exploring outside the capital.

It was with all this in mind that we sat down with Dane Weschler in yet another of the many delightful, but rather aristocratic, coffee shops in the city to plan our next adventures. Dane immediately began to counsel us against bringing the Speed TRs. My first reaction was sputtering indignation.

“But this is AsiaWheeling,” I attempted to explain… “To travel without the cycles would leave us feeling naked, helpless and alone.” Dane didn’t look convinced. “And who would we be, stripped of our precious steeds? What would we be doing? This is not AsiaTaxi-Cabbing, or AsiaWandering-the-Streets-til-Your-Feet-Hurt.”

“Oh, you’ll get your wheeling,” Dane assured us. And he was right.

We arrived in Chiang Rai after an overnight bus ride, and as the anti-anxiety medications wore off, we found ourselves riding in a little red pickup truck, into the back of which had been installed two long wooden benches.

It was taking us from the bus station to the center of town, where our mission was to rent motorcycles.

Once in the center of town, we quickly found that Dane was even more of a master of this city than of Bangkok.

He led us first to a place where we could purchase a couple of cups of fragrant, strong espresso, laced with plenty of thick golden cream.

And with the caffeination problem out of the way,  we followed Dane around the corner to a motorcycle rental shop.

My experience riding motorcycles added up to the few odd times that I was allowed to putt around on someone’s dirt bike during social gatherings in the farmlands of Iowa. Needless to say, the current situation was quite different. With judicious use of Dane’s formidable Thai bargaining skills, and some minor leveraging of the AsiaWheeling brand (I believe three matching business cards, one of which was in Thai, helped), we were riding off on three brand new Honda Wave 110’s, putting along and struggling to re-wire neural pathways long burned in by wheeling in order to operate these new terrifyingly powerful machines.

I’ll have to be honest with you, dear reader, I am quite conflicted in my views on the motorcycle. It is certainly a scary and monstrously powerful machine. However, on the back of the thing, I found myself somewhat drunk on the sheer power that lay between my legs. And these were by no means large motorcycles.

The more I rode, the more I began to enjoy the feeling of whipping along on this beast, leaning into the turns, and watching the scenery go by.

I let the whip of the wind and the hum of the motor fill my ears, as we tore through the beautiful countryside.

We had little time to get used to these new beastly wheels. It seemed no sooner had we begun to get comfortable with using the transmission and properly signaling and braking than it was time to take our first long cross-country ride.  We were going to ride north, up into the mountains toward a city called Doi Maesalong, once again on the Burmese border. It was tea and opium county, though many of the old opium farmers had been encouraged by the Thai government to switch over to coffee production.

Before joining the AsiaWheeling team, Dane had worked for the international coffee magazine, Coffee T&I, and so was bubbling with data about the local coffee world.

There is little time to chat, though, when motorcycling. Most communications require a fair bit of screaming over the road, engine, and wind. So I just let my head nest into visions from films like Easy Rider, while bits of 70s rock songs swam through my head, and I thought about how I got so close to finishing “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” That was a good book…

Dane can always be counted on to call waypoints for expensive and delectable coffee, and this ride was no exception. We stopped at a place called “Parabola.”

They provided us with a refreshing sip of free WiFi, and also some delightfully rich and potent coffee drinks, and a startling view of the countryside. It was smokey here too, if anything even more smokey than it had been in Sangklaburi, lending that strange unrealness to the environment, for which I must admit to you dear reader, I was growing a taste.

As the sun began to lower into the sky, the amount of smoke through which it must be filtered increased exponentially, reducing it quickly to a red ball that hung so dimly that it could be observed comfortably by the unaided eye.

As the sun became a different star, we climbed on the cycles up into the mountains, at times finding ourselves climbing mountain roads so steep that we needed to shift down into first gear. The addition of the smoke made the mountains feel unbelievably high, as though we were floating in an infinity of cloud. Once we had made it to the top, we began to work our way along the crest of the mountains, whipping down the startlingly smooth and new Thai country road, past a number of security checkpoints designed to address the rampant problem of Burmese drugs crossing into Thailand. The security guards were neither interested in us, or, as far as I know, effective in stopping the drug traffickers. From my understanding they mostly serve to hassle the local hill tribes, many of which lack proper identification.

The sun was finally giving way to darkness as we pulled into the town of Doi Maesalong, where the road wound way even more tightly and steeply by little shops, restaurants, and, most surprisingly, a giant 7-11. Thailand, in case I have not already emphasized this, is deep in the throes of a love affair with 7-11, and with branches spreading all the way to this remote outpost, who knows what can pull it out of that spiral.

Our hotel was the site of an old Taiwanese military base. The Taiwanese had been in this region fighting against China. As you no doubt already know, dear reader, Taiwan broke away from China in 1949 when the Republic of China (now called Taiwan) lost to the communist Chinese forces. As part of the war between the two factions, Republic of China troops called Guo Min Dang had been placed here, in the north of Thailand and had built the base that later became our guest house.

There were many classes of rooms at the base turned resort, but ours, being one of the least expensive was a wooden shed, with cold running water, three firm futon-esque mattresses on the floor, a gnarly roach problem, and a stunning view of the smoke enshrouded mountains amongst which Doi Maesalong finds itself.  A rustic, yet very comfortable setup.

By then it was high time for eating. We were starving, despite the fact that we had spent most of the day sitting on vibrating metal beasts.

I thought back to how hungry the characters always seemed to be in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and also back to a study about rats that I once came across, which suggested that merely vibrating the rats bodies stimulated their metabolisms in a way almost akin to actual exercise. I’d be the last to draw any conclusions from those two data points, but regardless, we were quite glad to find ourselves feasting at a completely empty Chinese restaurant, laying into some crispy pork and Chinese greens.

We spent the rest of that evening chatting about Thailand, the Red Shirts, AsiaWheeling, and the south-east Asian coffee industry with Dane’s friend and owner of a local coffee and cake joint called Sweet Maesalong.


  1. Rohan | April 21st, 2010 | 11:19 pm

    That motorcycle video reminds me of that time I sold a buttload of cocaine to Phil Spector then wheeled across the southwest with Dennis Hopper. Bad people, good drugs, wild times.

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