You can take the girl from the adventure bike but you can’t take the adventure out of the girl.
You may recall that my KTM 690 Enduro is stuck on the wrong side of Cambodian border because covid, and you may also recall that I do my own stunts – also known as highsiding the not-awesome hire bike that I was using to get around. And thus, I made an investment to tide me over – my Thailand commuter if you will – a 2013 CBR650F, acquired at a screamingly good covid-special price.
She’s black, and heavy as dark matter, and that inline four feels like a jet taking off when you reef the throttle to the stopper. Oh my. So yeah, my commute has gotten considerably quicker. It takes me longer to put on my gear than it does to cross the city.
There’s some meme that’s been going around for years, a guy on a GSXR fording a river, with some quip about adventure being about taking inappropriate equipment to inappropriate places. I always saw it with pity and horror (that poor gixxer) but that was before I was invited on a road ride with my superbike pals to go drink some coffee.
I had met my friend Peter a year earlier when I was riding down the street in Chiang Mai and saw his white Ducati Supersport parked by the curb. I immediately chucked a u-turn and went back to admire it. Do you know how rare it is to see such a thing of beauty here? I mean, Honda Waves are great but there’s something about a single sided swing arm and that bang of desmo valves that makes the heart beat a little faster.
Like any good owner of such a beautiful creature, Peter was sitting with a clear view of her; and frankly it would be rude to perv on someone’s bike so obviously (you look, you don’t touch) without saying hello. And that’s how we became friends.
So when he invited me on a road ride with his group, I even went and washed my bike. If you know me, you’ll know I’m a ‘fork seals only’ kind of girl, but this time I took my black beauty down for a proper froth and polish.
I am the first to arrive at the rendezvous point and circle the parking lot lonesomely.
But soon big bikes started pulling up: a CB650, two or three CB500Xs, a z800, the beautiful Supersport and, slightly incongruously, a brand new CRF300L. I introduce myself to some strangers, some of whom seemed slightly terrified about being accosted by a random foreigner, but we soon establish that I am, indeed, invited, and am not actually stalking any of them.
It is a gloriously sunny morning, an unexpected delight in the middle of the rainy season, and we head west for the Burmese border. I havve no idea where we are supposed to be going, but I will ride a motorcyce anywhere on the promise of coffee, and even without it.
Everything is going fabulously; I drop back and slip forward in the pack a couple of times to admire the Ducati and the z800 from different angles. We stop for beverages at an army checkpoint in the national park; everything is so chill. I didn’t know at the time but this will be, in a way, one of the last days of summer: although cut off from the world by covid restrictions, at this moment Thailand is still basking in the sun of basically zero infections up north. Within a few weeks’ time, Delta will arrive and smack Chiang Mai into a world of pain. It hasn’t happened yet, though.
We turn off the main road and head north, threading through progressively tinier intervillage roads. The clouds gather around us and make everything damp; concrete roads literally green with moss. I ease off the throttle and tell myself to chill tf out: these conditions will have you in the bushes before you even know what’s happened, and there are way too many fairings on a CBR for those kinds of shenanigans.
I am coming up a steep right hander when I lose steering. The bars will not turn: straight ahead only. I pull the clutch and eased on the brakes before disaster can strike. When I look down, the culprit is immediately obvious: the ram mount style bauble bolted onto my bars has snapped in two and my phone is now jammed between fork and fuel tank. That’d be why she isn’t turning…
I extract my phone from its predicament and it’s fine; the old Galaxy s7 is a veteran of crashes, disasters, hard enduro and other assorted impacts after nearly five years on the road with me. It’s seen worse. I asked Peter if I can put the now-unmoored phone and x-grip in his backpack, and he is delightfully obliging; little does he know of the shopping to come.
Now, in fairness to Ram Mount, I suspect that the defective bauble mount was a fake and not the authentic product; on the other hand, I did have the same thing happen to my genuine Ram Mount a couple of years ago in Laos, after three years or so of punishment. Suboptimal, but perhaps to be expected.
We carry on through the slippy slidey half-rain and then, on a mountain top, somebody puts the guy on the CRF300 in charge. Yes, he’s running those IRC knobbies. Yes he is on a dirt bike. No, nobody warned me.
Now the road is dirt. Dammit, I think, as I negotiate the ruts carefully on my sport suspension and half-slick tyres. Hopefully this will only be for a few hundred metres.
Catch me three hours later, and the sweat is running into my eyes as I wrestle 220kg of sports bike up a washed out clay track. Pick your line, pick your line, pick your line is on repeat inside my head: CBR enduro is one of those things that is fiiiine as long as you don’t stuff up. If you make a mistake though – then you’re toast. Physics is coming to kick yo ass.
Just then, one of the guys on a CB500X blasts past me and takes my line. I start cursing inside my helmet. Yes mate, congratulations on being able to ride dirt faster than a CBR but I cannot afford to accommodate that bullshit right now. I make some kind of enraged hand gesture which he hopefully interprets as “good on you mate, keep going” and I don’t crash.
Later, my intestines are digesting themselves, lunch is hours overdue. We stop at a tiny village shop and the guys get on the beers while I down an electrolyte drink and a sweetened soy milk, which proceed to curdle delightfully in my stomach. I ask one of the guys when we’ll be stopping for lunch and he tells me he doesn’t know, because he doesn’t know this route, is not exactly sure where we are and doesn’t know where the next food will be. Not at all reassured, I eat some kind of compressed chicken product on a stick, which is full of shards of bone. It is really, really bad; but not as bad as that paste made out of bamboo worms, so I guess there’s that.
I’m not the only person here today trying to nurse a sportsbike through the ruts, though. I might have the heaviest, but Peter’s Ducati definitely takes the trophy for “least suitable motorcycle”, and Lakpa’s z800 can’t be much better than the CBR in these conditions. But everyone’s still smiling. That’s the thing I love about riding with groups in Thailand – and actually in Indonesia too: every trip is a party. It doesn’t matter what happens, everyone is still laughing. The only difference is that my Thai friends drink more.
Next, we hit the wet orange clay. It’s been raining and the hills are steep. Road tyres, unbridled horsepower, no rain mode or traction control or any of that fancy stuff, and 220kg of uncooperative fully faired motorcycle which I cannot flatfoot. I get sideways; I pull it back again; I get sideways; I pull it back again. My clutch hand is getting a work out. Then I see the hill: it just drops away under a coating of slick clay like melted butter. This is the point of no return. If I go down that zero traction hill, there is no way in the world this buffalo of a bike is going to get back up it again – unless it’s being dragged up by a real water buffalo. Fark, I think, and dig my weight down through my feet and knees, and just slide down the hill like it’s a slippery dip. Steering zero; traction zero; just keep your balance and skate.
I get to the bottom of the hill, adrenalin coursing through my viens, but still upright, still unscathed, fairings intact.
A short while later we see concrete, and then bitumen. I feel like kissing it. “Sorry bike,” I say, and swear only to ever ride with this group again on a dual sport. Of course, I am lying. I will be back.
It is mid afternoon when we arrive at our destination – a tiny Karen village in the mountains near the Burmese border, growing coffee and making woollen textiles. Wool, yes, wool: super unusual for Thailand, but it’s cold up here. The woollen garments are beautiful, and the young woman behind the counter single handedly makes lunch and coffee for more than twenty people. Covid has basically terminated their tourism income, so this sudden influx of hungry people is probably a blessing but also overwhelming. Eventually we are all fed.
I happily buy coffee, which I refuse to buy from supermarkets: coffee growing in Thailand is mostly a village industry, largely replacing opium in mountain areas like this. You can imagine how being forced to switch from opium to coffee at the point of a gun affects your profit margins. So I always buy direct from the growers.
I am also seduced by the beautiful wool textiles. In my previous life, I had an eye for fashion and for beautiful things. I love texture and depth and richness in fabrics; I was the person always running my fingers through the folds, massaging the fibres between finger and thumb before deciding to buy.
Eventually I settle on a simple wool and cotton weave top, cream and ochre. Just the kind of thing to put on with your jeans on a cool winter day in northern Thailand.
Of course, I then promptly palm this purchase off on to Peter to carry – his backpack is so useful! – and he takes it in good humour, adding the garment to the coffee, phone, and phone mount already weighing him down. His Ducati Supersport has also survived the journey unscathed, and he’s still got a smile on his face: the best kind of people.
We are back on bitumen after that, but I notice the light fading when we are still closer to Burma than Chiang Mai.
It’s been a day, so I peel off and head for home, flying through the twisties around Hot, finally doing what this bike has been built to do. I stop at a fuel station and see a bunch of guys – mostly Thai, and a lone Australian – coming back from a weekend of dirtbike camping. They are on rigged out KLXs and properly dirty; they’ve had some fun too. So of course I go make friends with them. It turns out that one of them is Keng, a kind of semi-famous mechanic in the Chiang Mai dirt biking scene; I first heard his name years ago. But Chiang Mai is a small town, and like The Wire, everything connects.
As I fly back into Chiang Mai on the highway at dusk, my eyes are wide as I look for Hiluxes doing U-turns in the middle of the dual carriageway, which is kind of a Thailand special. There would be no more classically Thai way to go out than at the hands of a u-turning Hilux driver, hopped up on beer Chang and lord knows what else, while I fly down the road on an inappropriately dirty sports bike after a day in the hills.
But today, it’s not my time. I manage to spot and avoid all the Hiluxes, all the grannies on scooters, all the side car food rigs that just drive sideways across the traffic while hoping for the best. My eyes are sharp; I can smell woodsmoke on the air at dusk, and I feel alive.
I arrive in Chiang Mai from an unfamiliar direction and navigate unerringly for my current lair. I remember how disoriented I felt when I first came into Chiang Mai, with its curving roads and one-way whirlpool of traffic around the moat of the Old City. Now it feels familiar, known. It’s been almost a year and a half since the borders snapped shut, closing me into Thailand, and for a moment it almost feels like home.
I give the CBR a pat of gratitude as I lock the steering and tuck her up for the night. We had an adventure and she did not let me down. Upstairs, I crack a beer and stare into my own face – dirty, worn out, happy – in the reflection of my phone screen. It takes me ten minutes to tug all my gear off – boots, kevlar, knee guards, jacket – because I am tired, and I’m lazy, and because the beer is so good and cold in my throat, and because I can. I lean my back against the front door, and I am happy.