It’s New Year’s Eve 2020, and I am alone. Completely alone, in a darkened in a valley in northern Thailand. Cool air is rolling down the mountain sides and gathering around me, around and under the house which hovers over a still pond. Outside, the blackness is broken only by the silent luminenscent of fire flies, flitting in and out of banana groves.
I am at peace. It has been… a year. Quite a year, and not in a good way. It started with tears of worry then descended into a pandemic which froze my travels and robbed me of my independence like a thief in the night; and then it taught me the price of that loss with violence. It was a lesson learned with bitterness. Along with this lesson: never pity a dying man.
I pour my last cup of chamomile tea and add a dash of whiskey by feel, unable to see much in the shadows. The only light comes from a glass mosaic lamp in the corner of the room which turns my bed into a glowing oasis. That’s where I go now – bed, curling my feet under me as I settle into a pile of pillows which ring me like a luxurious body guard. I say, if you have twenty pillows, why not use them.
I check my phone and there is an invitation from one of my Thai friends, a cool motorcycling lady, Thailand’s first female GS trophy qualifier. A breaker of moulds. But I’m in bed with my chamomile and whiskey, and it’s New Year’s Eve, and after the year that’s been I don’t feel much like celebrating. What I want is rest, and safety, and peace. I say thank you, but no thank you, and at 9pm I tell the New Year to let itself in, and I sleep.
The next day the invitation is still there, renewed. Come and ride dirt bikes in the mountains, it says. I don’t have a dirt bike, I say. My KTM 690 Enduro is marooned in Phnom Pehn and I’ve been trying to get back to it since the borders closed in April 2020. I’ve been scraping by on the cheapest hire bikes I could find, now a CB300 with butt-clenchingly cheap tyres which slide sideways every time I look at a corner. Zero stars, do not recommend, but beggars can’t be choosers.
When the next message comes back with the offer of a KLX150 for the day, my resolve of noble solitude instantly dissolves. Motorbikes? In the jungle? Hell yes. I get the map pin, plug it into my phone and then spend an hour looking for camping gear. My slick, pared-back set up is still strapped to my bike in Cambodia so the duffel that ends up drooping over the passenger seat of the CB contains mostly chaos. Nevermind.
I pick my way through back roads for an hour, getting higher and higher into the mountains. It’s winter in Thailand, which means blue sky days, dry roads and general perfection. Eventually I arrive at the relevant valley, but can’t figure out which road will take me to the house on the hill. It’s okay, though, the local people wordlessly point me the way: there’s only one house in this moo ban where foreigners come to visit, so they know where I’m going better than me.
And lucky me. Because when I arrive at the house on the hill, I find food and beer and friends and motorcycles. Yes, that’s right, I find happiness.
I don’t know how to ride dirt bikes. As a child, I grew up in the mountains and we had small motorcycles to ride around through the bush. But they were strictly for purposes of transportation: to stack the bike and break something (on the bike) was more than your life was worth. So I grew up and moved away and got my road licence and spent the next few years of my life doing stupid things on sports bikes at much higher speeds. When I bought the 690 Enduro and decided to ride around the world, I still couldn’t ride off road to save my life. But necessity is the mother of all invention. With my full 165cm of height and negligible strength, I learned to wrestle my towering 690 Enduro up and down mountains in Indonesia and later Laos and Vietnam, following the single track with white knuckle determination and the unbroken mantra: don’t fuck up / don’t fuck up / don’t fuck up it’s easy just don’t fuck up.
But proper dirt biking? Enduro? When I rock up to that house in the mountains and see the 2 stroke enduro bikes out the front – Husqvarna and Gas Gas – I know I’ve stumbled onto a level of competency which only exists in my dreams.
I know enough to know who Graham Jarvis is, and I know that the Husqvarna TE300 in front of me is the same kind of bike that I’ve seen defying gravity all over my facebook feed. Holy shit.
I look up and there’s my friend Wasa, waving, asking if I’ve eaten and also what the hell happened to me, did I get lost, I took so long to arrive they thought I’d died. Fair enough too. It is too difficult to explain that I’d been having an anxiety attack over my camping gear and my 690 and all of my other most precious possessions which remained marooned in Cambodia after almost a year. That I’d been sweating as I thought yet again of my fruitless attempts to secure a Cambodian business visa and entry permit so that I could rescue my bike. That I’d been imagining (again) all the illegal things I might need to do to extract my KTM from Cambodia after more than a year of overstay. So I just agree that yes, I’d gotten lost, although it had been more in my mind than in the mountains.
We go riding. Me on the diminutive KLX, Wasa on the towering TE300 that’s so much taller than her that she has to do a rolling mount. Her boyfriend – thus deprived of his TE300 – commits to hours standing up on the trials bike. Add another Husky and the Gas Gas EC300 and that makes five.
Into the jungle we go. I might have no skills but I can flatfoot the KLX like a giant so I’m fine. I watch time and again as Wasa tumbles from the dizzying heights of the TE300, hopelessly unmatched to her physical dimensions. Every time she muscles it back upright on her own; the rule is, one help = one beer, and Wasa’s not giving away any beers this time.
As we the jungle thickens and we pick our way around obstacles, I notice the different riding styles. Oud is skilful and strong, but half the time will go the hard way just for fun. I reconsider following his lines. P is smooth and controlled, judiciously picking the path of least resistence, using skill over strength. Sabai sabai – chill chill. I follow him.
As the afternoon turns golden we crest a mountain with beers in our pockets. Villages and valleys spread out below us and I am buzzing with delight. On the way up the mountain I have managed to stack in a mud puddle for no real reaon (sorry bike) and later I will wonder if I’ve fractured my foot, but for now it feels fine. We crack those cold beers and crack some jokes, I can’t speak Thai, but it doesn’t matter, because sabai sabai. I speak beer and motorbike, and it’s enough.
The summit is host to a slew of four wheel drives, and we find a feisty eleven year old girl who has already discovered the truth that two wheels are better than four. She comes to inspect our bikes and I ask her which one she prefers. She picks the Gas Gas EC300 Six Days, and I know she’s got potential.
Standing on top of that mountain, I know that I’m on the edge of a new addiction. Enduro. Can I do this? Can I learn it? Of course I can. P is just drinking his beer and smiling, and I know that there’s a place for me here.
On the way home, Oud lets me ride the TE300. The first time I’ve ever slung a leg over a 2 stroke, and this one’s a cracker. I am literally giggling with glee. Oh lord save me. I’m lost.