The gods were smiling on me as I waved goodbye to my friends in Nong Kai, a foil wrapped serving of barbecue ribs in my backpack for later snacking. My search for new tyres, specifically Rosso IIs, had been immediately fruitful when my friend at the Saloon Loei had recommended a local tyre shop who came through with the goods. In stock and everything. When I rolled into their workshop in Loei around midday, the guys knew exactly who I was; my tyres were waiting and they sprang to work. It was a credible impression of an F1 team, not least because I think they were supposed to be on their lunch break. It was super lovely of them and I was grateful for the kindness of the daisy chain of people who had responded to my call for new tyres far from the main cities of Thailand. People are lovely.
In fact people are so lovely that I turned around and immediately looped back the way I’d come – back past Nong Khai – because I had an invitation from a friend of a friend. You should go and see my friend who lives in Sakon Nakhon, Tom had messaged me, we’ve been friends for forty years. That sealed it: you come to recognise quality people, and if they’ve been friends for forty years then that’s a good enough for me. I decided to take the 600km detour, and see what life had in store for me.
As I crunched out the miles on the CBR650, I was so grateful for this bike. Previously (since Covid separated me from the KTM), I’d been riding tiny, not-great hire bikes in Thailand. A CBR150, a CB300 – and if you wanted to go anywhere at a decent pace you had to ride those little bikes pretty hard. It takes energy, and it also takes energy conservation – you become very reticent about braking for anything, because you know that it’s going to take time to regain that momentum. I will admit there were times when I kept the throttle open and just aimed for gaps when otherwise I might have braked. Anyway, now that was all in the past: I’d scraped the pennies together for this second hand 2013 CBR650F, and now I knew that I’d made a good choice We just cruised down the straights, and sailed through the corners, and it was so relaxing and so comfortable. Add the new tyres to the mix and suddenly I had traction again: I’d lean her through the corners and she’d stick like glue. I felt so safe.
It was a long day on the bike, about 10 hours of riding due to my loop back through Loei for the tyres, but by the time darkness fell I was nearly at my destination. I turned off the highway and followed map directions which led me deeper and deeper into dark, slumbering village streets. It was so quiet that the sleeping dogs refused to move from the middle of the road, and I had to ride around them. Apparently I was heading for a place called Fat Mango Pizza, but as I picked my way through the village streets I couldn’t imagine there being a pizza shop anywhere around here.
Well, it turns out that I just lack imagination, because pizza shop there was. Take away only, sure, but some damn fine and cheesy homemade pizza right there in the village. David and his adorable dog came out to greet me; I had arrived. A little stiff, I tucked the bike under the awning up agains the house, pulled my gear off it and David had a cold beer waiting. What a legend.
There ensued an evening of excellent conversation, pizza and beer, and the obligatory gloating photo to send to our mutual friend in America. (Sorry, Tom!)
By the way, if you’ve never had pad ka prow pizza, you should. It may sound peculiar but I assure you that the flavours of spicy ground beef and Thai basil on a homemade pizza are a triumph of fusion cuisine. Matched wine is, of course, beer Chang.
About six beers later I had learnt a hell of a lot about podcasting, because it turns out that David runs a very successful one in his spare time. Inspirational Living features biweekly readings from the works of some of the most inspirational and insightful writers throughout history who have focused their minds on the ever-demanding task of living of a good life. If you are seeking insights into a eudamonia in bite-sized chunks, then this podcast is for you.
On the other hand, if all you want to do is tour happily around Sakon Nakhon, David runs a website about that too. Which is kind of awesome, because I think it’s fair to say that Sakon Nakhon is pretty much off the beaten track for foreign visitors. I even had to ask David to tell me how to pronounce the name of the place I’d ridden so many miles to visit; turns out I was putting the emphasis on the wrong syllables, making it impossible for any Thai person to know where the hell I was talking about. But this happens to me a lot.
The following day I headed off into the sunshine with my mind full of interesting new ideas and directions to an ancient Khmer temple, Pra That Phu Phek. Now if you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I’m not much of a temple goer; indeed I’m a pretty bad tourist, much more interested in drinking beers in the gutter with the shadiest locals I can find, than visiting polished tourist attractions. I also feel a bit weird about going to temples just to gawp, a voyeur on someone else’s religion. But this temple is different: it is ancient. Long before Thailand took its current shape, this part of the world was in the Khmer empires, which we would now associate with Cambodia. The temple sits on top of a mountain, 491 steps into the sky, and it looks like something out of Indiana Jones. Massive darkened slabs of sandstone tower above you, creating a looming space open to the sky.
A contemporary Thai shrine with small gold Bhuddas sits inside the inner enclosure, but it looks slightly incongruous amidst this dark architecture of power.
My next destination was a highlight very typical for me: a twisty road that I’d spied on the map, just south of Sakon Nakhon. I am told that it’s locally known as The Snake, and if you look at the aerial cover photo for mysakonnakhon.com, you’ll see why.
I’m a sucker for twisty roads, and with new sticky tyres – I was over the moon. One of the best feelings in the world is tipping a bike into a corner hard as you dip your knee down to kiss the road; one of the worst feelings in the world is tipping a bike into a corner and feeling the back start to slip.
By the time I’d finished The Snake, my new Rosso IIs were hot and scrubbed. I patted them affectionately and thanked the gods of motorcycling for putting such nice things in my life.
I rode over a pretty reservoir but by three in the afternoon, fatigue hit me like a freight train. I had to stop, I needed to lie down. Blissfully, I spied a sign for coffee and food, which I rode straight past because my reflexes were getting tortoise slow. Half a kilometre down the road I did a careful u-turn and came back. It was an oasis. Little bamboo shade houses built around ponds. The young waiter was super sweet as well, trying out his English on me.
I ordered an iced green tea, took off my boots and lay back for a micronap in the cool breeze which was sweeping the sun drenched plains. Revived slightly, I knew I needed to stay in Kon Kaen, the next town: I needed to stop and have an early night before my attention wandered and I got run over by a truck.
I opened up google maps to get a sense for where the guesthouses might be located, and was greeted by the news that we have no accommodation available for those dates. What? Khon Kaen is a city, there must be a hundred guest houses and hotels in the place. Then I remembered: public holiday. Oh no. I had completely forgotten the long weekend which had liberated half of Bangkok to drive up to Khon Kaen for a mini holiday. Oops.
I went into town anyway and started asking at any hotel or guest house I could find: dtem, full, they all told me. Ugh, I was so tired. The last place I tried was a cute little assemblage of cabins built in a guy’s backyard on the edge of town. Dtem, full, he told me as well. Ah dear. I thanked him anyway, wai’ed him and gave him a smile: sure I had a problem but it wasn’t his fault. I sat down for a moment in front of his office to drink some water and consult my maps again. There was probably accommodation available in Udon Thani, but it was at least a two hour ride away and not in the direction I wanted to go, either. The old man looked at me with an amused smile, and asked if I was alone. Yes, I told him, I’m touring on my own. He complimented me on my motorcycle and then told me – wait here – and disappeared off on his scooter.
A few minutes later he was back, telling me to follow him. I pulled my gear back on and followed him across the highway and up the other side, to a big looming old building – a cheap hotel. They were full, too; but my new self-appointed guardian had explained to neighbours that I was alone, with no friends and nowhere to sleep, and everyone felt sorry for me. The staff conceded that there was an empty room on the third floor but it wasn’t ready – it had no sheets, no pillowcases, it hadn’t been cleaned; it wasn’t really in use. But if I wanted to wait, they would clean it for me. Yes, yes please! I said, wai’ing them in gratitude. Compared to sleeping in a carpark, anything would be luxury.
Thus satisfied, my self-appointed guardian left me at his neighbours’ hotel and went home again.
I waited in the mint green lobby – a favourite paint shade for budget hotels in this part of the world – and soon found myself ushered to perfectly nice, clean, comfortable room with two beds and hot water. It was 300 baht – about $9 – and for me at that moment, it was heaven.
I bought myself a post-ride beer, showered, thought about how people are just nice, and passed out until morning.