Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Four Wheels Good, Two Wheels Better!

This Roulette Green bulging hulk of steel and plastic is my 1999 Triumph Speed Triple. After not owning a bike for almost 15 years, I bought it off of a young woman gallery owner in Bar Harbor in 2004. I am not sure what transpired, but after selling my 82 Moto Guzzi 500 (coincidentally to another young woman), I didn't think much about bikes or yearn for them, and then suddenly I couldn't think of anything else all the day long. The Maine riding season is brutally short, and even when the weather finally does turn friendly, the roads remain covered in treacherous mounds of leftover sanding debris, and all year long the roads are generally in lousy shape. Still, once I drove up to Bar Harbor on that cold March day and cleaned the glass to peer into the shuttered restaurant where it was stored, I was a goner. I have always been in enamored with the cachet of Triumphs (so much of motorcycling is finding that just right fit of who you are- or at least how you perceive yourself in your mind- pathetically shallow of me, I am the first to admit), but there is a very practical aspect to the decision as well since what type of riding you do, what accoutrements you need, and what discomforts  and hassles you are willing to endure all factor into ultimately living with the bike. The luckiest bikers are those who can afford several bikes.They have one for long rides, like a nice Beemer with heated grips and an engine you can count on to smoothly take you down the road for thousands of miles without a blip. And then they have some kind of sweet little classic Honda 350 four stroke for around town, or maybe something dark and retro, like a Norton Commando, to take out for a short Sunday drive and then park in order to look online for the parts that broke. I knew that an old Triumph, with their penchant for problems would only destroy my love of biking if it were my only bike, so I was ecstatic when the new Triumph emerged and produced a unique and relatively reliable lineup. I have not been disappointed. Other than the dangerously false start and then trick stop my friend Dwight made on his Aprilia some years back at the entrance of the Owl's Head Transportation Museum, which forced me to drive my bike into his saddle bag and crack my headlight ( it was only thanks to my insanely rapid reaction time and my semi-professional motorcycle handling skills that we both avoided death. Occuring, as it did, during the peak hours of the annual motorcycle show, the multitudinous onlookers could but laugh in speechless astonishment at my prowess.) the bike has been superb in performance and reliability. Last summer before departing for Thailand proved wonderful for biking. When it rained it rained at night (mostly- I did get caught in one drencher coming home from tennis at Steve's), and the days were just the right coolness so my head did not bake in my helmet. For whatever reason- because I knew I wouldn't ride it for some time, or just that I was at a point of transition in my life, or that I was practicing being alone, I had some of the finest rides of my life, where I synchronized with the bike in corners and I smelled out speed traps just in time and the bike seemed to hit all the right notes. Then as summer wound down, my son Conor got the incurable itch and convinced me to both pay for his safety course and then trust him with the bike. Many friends advised me against this, and the idea of lending a 998 cc bike that can do 0-60 in under 3.5 seconds to a 17 year old did give me much pause. But I bought my first bike, a 1972 Honda CB 750, when I was 17, and Conor has shown much maturity and restraint for his age (he is not without his moments- he backed my truck into a Saab and almost totaled the Saab, and  drove my old hulking Mercedes into the back of a Toyota and managed to rupture my radiator). It was not exactly a unanimous decision at home, Conor's fever be damned. Anyhoo, following Conor on his first forays was uniquely scrotum tightening- for both of us judging from his exuberance when he dismounted. He rode it  successfully throughout the fall, though he did find it has its limits. No way was his girlfriend Hannah's father allowing her on the back- he is a trusting father but he is not a dipshit- Hannah was in the Mercedes when it found the stopped Corolla, and the crunched Saab was parked in Hannah's driveway! Conor parked the bike in my tool shed for the winter, and he swears he will find a job and start saving for his own bike. I hope he does because I would love to go on a longer trip together after he graduates high school next year.
      In the meantime, I have been scoping out bikes since my arrival in Thailand, where they play a much different function than in the US. Scooters occupy the vast segment of the transportation market here, with Yamaha and Honda dominating and Kawasaki and Suzuki coming in a distant third. Much like other second and third world countries, Thais use the scooter for daily commutes, for family outings, and for hauling.
 I don't have a good photo of a 5 aboard because that is a rare sight, but 4 aboard is not uncommon for short trips, say to the night market, and three aboard is almost as prevalent as mangy dogs.
When there is a rider with a helmet, it is inevitably the driver and never the innocent passengers. Probably the law but it hardly seems fair given their lack of ability to control their destiny. This particular scooter is in great shape and the family look to be well off. Jeans are expensive here and even acceptable as garb at nicer parties for adults.
All kinds of other businesses use them for deliveries, so one sees them loaded down precariously on occasion. Here is the regular post guy with his bags. This is almost identical to the scooter I took a photo of in Cozumel some eight years ago. I get to work at NongYaSai school on a scooter just like this three days a week, piloted by my friend Snooker. It will do 45mph or so comfortably with the two of us and my backpack. There are other skinnier scooters, usually much louder and putting out gobs of oil smoke, which leads me to believe they are 2 cycle engines. Many of these are clearly hopped up and I have seen them scream by at 65 or so. Looking at their narrow wheels, I wonder how stable they feel at this rate of travel. Naturally, I have been toying with the idea of becoming motorcycle mobile, and every scooter and beyond catches my eye.
I first started getting serious when this gang of Harleys rolled into NKP. I was sitting in the cafe behind them, having one of the few available american coffees when twenty or so parked right there. One of their number was an ex-pat brit (the only one not on a Harley - Yamaha R1). We bonded discussing my Triumph and our mutual disdain for Milwaulkee Iron (Quietly and politely since all his friends were riding them). In my dream world, I would go right out and find a nice 650 dual purpose bike or 750 or larger road bike, but they actually cost more here than in the states. My whopping budget is $800- $1200 including insurance. Beyond this, the first hurdle was a license, for although many riders clearly do not possess them ( I have seen riders as young as 9 or 10 riding) I felt if something does happen I preferably wanted to stay out of jail. I thought I had taken care of that with an international license I received in Maine before I left, which clearly lists Thailand as a participating country, but the reality on the ground is trickier. Online the information said that Thailand honored these for 90 days and after that a Thai one was necessary. It did say that by having the international version I would be spared a written test, but that I would have to go for a drive. My policeman friend Rambo really wasn't sure it was good at all, but he agreed to take me to a nearby city to the motor vehicles. Then it turned out that one of the teachers at Thai Samakee has a daughter who works in the bureau right in NKP. I was given a list of what I needed (a health certificate- had to go back to the hospital again for a second one- letters of reference from both of my schools, and my Maine driving license). None of it corresponded to the online requirements, but with a connection in hand I wasn't going to raise questions. I went with my director, handed over my paperwork (I actually brought the international one and it was rebuffed without comment), had my photo taken, and voila- I was a legal motorcycle driver for one year. Oddly, I am not allowed to drive cars - that is issued as a wholly separate card. I thought I told my Paaw Aw that I wanted both, but thanks to our "Tenglish" issues, we left without it. I didn't feel like I should push it since we took most of the school day to get the one.
I have more or less settled on a very cool little bike not available in the states, a Honda 150r or 150CBR. Not much power, but from what I have read they handle very nicely. These retail for about $3500 new, so used ones fall into my range.  I face the same issues with buying a used bike as I do with all things involving speech. I have checked craiglist thailand, and there are a few, but they are down in Bangkok and these bikes are simply too small to ride that far. So I am talking as much as I can to anyone that looks like a gearhead, which led to my meeting with Kuang, owner of the bar we all drank at in Surin, when we went to the elephant roundup last weekend. This is why I haven't been blogging lately; I am still catching up. And for all of you who could give two shakes of a dead rat's ass about bikes and are wondering why I am not posting about the hundreds of elephants I saw this past weekend, I can only say, It's coming! Be patient!
 Here we are at Kuang's bar, and that is Kuang. We also ran into another group of English teachers working through a group called CIEE. It was odd since they mirrored our group in number, age, and gender. I was wearing my Triumph t-shirt and later that night met a young Swede who owned a speed triple back home! Even more remarkable was one of the other group who turned out to know my former student Abby and had gone to Milton Academy with one of our group members! I suppose the higher one goes up the economic and educational ladder, the more likely the 6 degrees of separation become a promise more than a game. I doubt Bill Gates finds it remarkable when he and Warren Buffet know the same person. But back to to Kuang. I was determined to get to know him since his CBR1100 was parked outside, as well as a custom kawasaki. He had enough broken English that we could natter on about bikes and before I knew it he had called down all his biker friends, one of whom is building him a custom bike using  four stroke motor from my first bike, a Honda 750. Here are a series of photos of some of the bikes that showed up.

This project is very similar to the bike Kuang is having built, including the motor. Notice the wonderful welding and inventiveness. This ain't built in no pristine hyper stocked Orange County garage! As with their relationship with food and food preparation, the reality of the economics here means that lines are closer between production and consumption. They do not have to urge people to "shop local" because most likely they are scrapping out of their own trash heap for at least some of the parts. What was nice was that though these guys were very cool, they were not at all arrogant or pricks. When an excited tourist (Thai) came jaunting up and excitedly asked if he could straddle the bike so his girl could take a photo, they graciously acquiesced. And though they spoke no English they were very pleasant and enduring of my gesticulating and babbling. Kuang said he could find me a bike but there are two problems: The bikes they ride are not licensed or insured and he is a 5 hour drive from where I live. Still, I have his number and it may come in handy. Below is the builder himself with his own unfinished custom bike (notice the beautiful Yamaha 400 SINGLE piston behind him!). As they say, SWEET! Also notice the lack of front brakes. When I asked about this Kuang jokingly showed how I could put my foot on the tire to use friction...

Okay, okay. One more shot of their super cool club jacket. There is your elephant!
Originally I had intended this post to cover all things two wheeled, but somehow motorbikes took over. Imagine that. Well, here are some other wonderfully interesting two wheeled conveyances I have seen in the last two months. This first is my number one favorite. They are everywhere and they function as everything - tractor, family station wagon, commuter. I have actually ridden in a cart behind one I flagged down in the rain. So bitchin.

Don't try to get all technical on me, because the two wheels behind are actually a cart. The tractor only has two wheels. That second one is pulling tubers that will be made into tapioca, I think.
As long as we're stretching the rules, here is a peddy cab I saw in Sakhon. None of these in NKP.
And here is a similar vehicle being used to haul a shit ton of things good for your heart. And a guy.
 Now back to the actual two wheelers.
Remember the broom dude? This is how you make a living with brooms. They work well, since they are tailored to differing surfaces and cost a few bucks each and are biodegradable for the most part.
And here is tonight's closer. This guy passed me yesterday in NKP. He had a little squeeze horn attached to the handle that he tooted every 20 feet or so. I was going the other direction and almost- blew it off- is there a less stupid saying that conveys that same idea a little more sharply? My brain is fried. Send it to me if you could. Anyhoo, I kicked myself in the ass and dug my camera out and ran back a block to follow him up an alley where, when I pointed my camera at him he lounged so perfectly as if he had been waiting for me to show up and notice how fantastic he was, that the run was worth it.
Comment Contest! The first person who can identify the source of the allusion in the title of this post (don't use google you cheating slacker, just reason it out. I am an English teacher) will get a Thai gift when I get home - promise! Also the best suggestion to replace "blew it off" will get something...


  1. Peter - (there is a book in all this....a best seller I tell ya!) - This made me think of your eldest son and our Alex.....How long did they own the bike together until it was inside a rock wall with Noah at the hospital?! 2hours?
    Love to you, Kalla

  2. More like 20 seconds after it was unloaded from the truck!

  3. that's too easy! animal farm-- george orwell. four legs good, two legs baaad.

  4. I know- I have been teaching the alphabet and "short A" sounds for too long...Now - you're the lit major- give me a witty phrase for "blew it off" and double your prizes!