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Kick Ass Motorbiking Adventure in Ladakh (July 2015)

After eight long years, the mountains of Ladakh, India beckoned again. The motorbikes were calling out our names. High altitude passes, river streams and meandering roads were waiting to be crossed yet another time on a motorbike — this time on Royal Enfields. And so began the planning of our motorbike trip to Ladakh from Manali. Prashant, my friend and travel mate on our two previous motorbike rides in Ladakh organized this one too. Bold Swiss motorbike rider and fellow Hong Konger, Hannes also joined us for our kick ass motorbiking adventure in Ladakh during July 2015.

Photo courtesy: Hannes (he’s a better photographer than I am). All photos are here.

Hannes’ PowerPoint collage

2015-07-13, Chennai to Manali

  1. I took a flight into Delhi from Chennai. Flight landed 5 minutes early (Go IndiGo Air!) and met Prashant and Hannes at about 1945 outside the airport
  2. Took a pretty long taxi ride (saw India Gate, Red Fort on the way) and reached a super crowded ISBT (big intercity Delhi bus stand) at about 2100. Bus stand was a cacophony of activity
  3. Took a bus to Manali. Had front row seats. Hannes even helped fix a puncture en route at 3am while Prashant and I were asleep despite the rather uncomfortable seats
At ISBT bus stand

At ISBT bus stand

15-hour bus ride. Fixing a puncture at 3am

15-hour bus ride. Fixing a puncture at 3am

2015-07-14, Getting bikes plus permits in Manali

  1. reached Manali at 1.15pm (left at 2200 the previous day) making this the longest bus ride of my lifetime. 15 hours on a bus that stopped almost everywhere and even had puncture problems
  2. got the motorbikes from the Trip Advisor rated bikerentalmanali.com. Their shop was in a place called Vashisht in Manali. Luckily, the gears on the Enfield were on the left side. I got the new Thunderbird 350cc which was only a month old. Prashant and Hannes had classic Enfield 350cc bikes. Bike guy whose name was Abhinav Sood, seemed to be running a pretty lucrative business. Reliable guy but made us sign a million forms to indemnify his company against this, that, etc (guess he needs to). Bikes were in great condition
  3. got the permits done to cross Rohtang Pass at the SDM (not sure what that stands for) but it’s a pretty dull looking bureaucratic office in Manali City by the bus stand. We then tested the bikes out and slept like a log for 8 hours to recover from the 15-hour bus ride
Room in Manali

Room in Manali

Hannes with his "Black Beauty"

Hannes with his “Black Beauty”

Prashant and his Enfield

Prashant and his Enfield

Suited and booted and ready to go

Suited and booted and ready to go

Loading up on gas

Loading up on gas

2015-07-15, Manali to Jispa

  1. set off on our kick ass bike journey at 7am in the morning. Meandering roads, slushy terrain and dust-filled air greeted us on the first half of our ride. That and plenty of careful overtaking of heavy tucks that stirred up dust straight into our faces. The challenge of riding on slushy mountainous roads blended with the magnificence of the mountain itself
  2. the new Thunderbird 350cc I was riding definitely looked old after I crossed the muddy roads of Rohtang pass (about 3800m). The shock absorbers were put to good test during and after crossing Rohtang. We averaged around 16km per hour until Sissu (after Rohtang). It was rather an amusing sight to watch tourists dressed up in full blown snow suits when there was very little snow to see! It was like wearing a raincoat for protection from a small puddle of water in the remote distance
  3. we continued on after Rohtang and eventually reached Jispa at around 4pm (9 hours later) covering about 110km on Day 1 of our kick ass riding
  4. Jispa was quite beautiful. We found tent like accommodation with a proper toilet. It started to rain as soon as we were parked and settled! I even caught a rainbow from the toilet window
On the way to Rohtang Pass

On the way to Rohtang Pass

Little but of snow en route. Tourists wore a full snow suit for this!

Little but of snow en route. Tourists wore a full snow suit for this!

Hannes enjoying a Kingfisher in Jispa

Hannes enjoying a Kingfisher in Jispa

This is Jispa

This is Jispa

2015-07-16, Jispa to Pang

  1. Quite a hard day! We left Jispa early but got stuck at Baralacha La Pass. Two vehicles got stuck in a rather ominous looking river crossing. We waited for two hours for the army to clear the road using something called a JCB (some big crane). Later, Hannes was the first one among us to attempt to cross that stream. He rode through the bouldery stream crossing like a daredevil punk and succeeded in his first attempt! I needed help and almost fell. Prashant followed suit and made a successful attempt. More such stream crossings appeared and demanded some heavy motorbiking skills
  2. The lake at Baralacha La pass at 4927 meters was dazzling. Serene and picturesque. I remembered seeing this lake 8 years back in June when it was frozen. Now it appeared vast and was quite a sight. After the lake, came two very beautiful high altitude passes. Nakeela La at 4961m and Lachung La at 5097m. I almost lost control of the bike while negotiating a slope after Lachung La. Prashant had his first fall which resulted in a minor knee injury
  3. We finally ended up at a place called Pang at 4.30pm, which was at about 4500m above sea level. Although we did not want to stay at such an altitude, we were out of time and could not continue riding. Staying at Pang was a nightmare. We had basic tent like accommodation with many others. It was super cold and noisy (I also contributed to it through my occasional snoring). All the three of us had an altitude headache. Hannes didn’t sleep a wink. The previous two times I had stayed at Pang was in 2008/2009. Both times, I vomited and felt like someone had beaten me up. This time, the lady at the place gave me some ginger tea which really helped. I managed to spend the night at Pang without puking. I even ventured out quickly during the night to look at the stars. It was quite a sight! But, my visual treat was interrupted by my olfactory senses which detected the pungent smell of human excreta nearby! I gave the stargazing a rest and went back into the tent to try and resume my sleep despite the sharp high altitude headache
Truck stuck in Barlacha La pass

Truck stuck in Barlacha La pass

We had to wait for the army JCB to clear this mess

We had to wait for the army JCB to clear this mess

Prashant and Hannes wondering what to do next

Prashant and Hannes wondering what to do next

JCB tows away the van

JCB tows away the van

Hannes readies to cross

Hannes readies to cross

Finally made it through

Finally made it through

Barlacha La pass

Barlacha La pass

This is Barlilacha Lake. Usually frozen in winter

This is Barlilacha Lake. Usually frozen in winter

Nakeela Pass

Nakeela Pass

Pang - our resting abode for the night

Pang – our resting abode for the night

2015-07-17, Pang to Leh

  1. with much difficulty, we got out of our horrible tented accommodation in Pang. I got out to look at the toilets and immediately averted my eyes! First of all, I had trouble deciding where exactly the toilet was. The pungent smell my nose detected seemed to come from pretty much everywhere! Pieces of feces lay strewn around like landmines beyond a distance which was hardly a stone’s throw away. I decided that my own excreta was best contained within the confines of my intestines. Hannes proudly announced that he had gotten a nice one out the previous day on the mountains just before we got into Pang. Anyway, we got back on the bikes, happily left Pang, and it was then one relatively fast ride into More Plains, a 50km stretch of flat roads in the high altitude plains. We then hit another high altitude pass called Tanglang La pass at 5353m. Stunning. There was a temple there but I didn’t have enough energy to remove my shoes and go in, so I skipped going inside
  2. after Tanglang La pass, there was a meandering road that took us to Rumtse (4300m). Then we hit Upshi after another 50km of riding. The roads all the way from Pang were very good
  3. riding into Leh from Upshi was such a pleasure! There was a river hugging the winding road and I managed to hit 90kmh on the Enfield on many occasions
  4. upon reaching Leh, we found good accommodation in a hotel called Grand Willow (finally had access to a good toilet again!) After checking in, showering and getting rid of intestinal waste, we walked around to try and get permits done to visit Nubra Valley and Panagong Lake. (Since these places are close to border regions, one needs to get permits). Getting permits for Hannes seemed like a struggle initially. Apparently, non Indians can only get permits if there is at least two of them traveling together! I am not sure what a solo non Indian traveler would do! Anyway, some money and a travel agent up the road solved this problem for us by combining Hannes’ permit with some other non Indians. It was funny to see that they wrote down that Hannes was from “Swaziland” and not Switzerland in the permit!
The Moray plains

The Moray plains

Tanglang La pass (5300m). Couldn't go into the temple here

Tanglang La pass (5300m). Couldn’t go into the temple here

On the way to Leh

On the way to Leh

This is in the outskirts of Leh

This is in the outskirts of Leh

Our hotel put on a cultural show in Leh

Our hotel put on a cultural show in Leh

Not sure what these two gentlemen are laughing at

Not sure what these two gentlemen are laughing at

2015-07-18, Leh to Pangong Lake (aborted Nubra Valley attempt)

  1. armed with permits, we set off for Nubra Valley at 7am. However, around 10km into the journey, we were stopped by some local punks who insisted that we could only go to Kardung La (we had to cross this 5400m pass to get to Nubra Valkey) on Jammu and Kashmir rented bikes, not Manali rented bikes. Hannes unleashed a slew of verbal abuse at the guy which made him get on the phone to his boss. (For a couple of minutes, I thought Hannes was going to get himself killed!) However, the punks won and although illegal, they managed to turn us around
  2. after having been turned around, we decided to attempt Pangong Lake, although we felt we would be turned around there too by the punks there. As we were riding, at some point during the initial ride to Pangong lake, some local punks shouted at us and asked us to stop but we continued on regardless. After several hours of hardcore biking and several stream crossings which rendered by feet numb, we reached Chang La (5378m). As usual, there was a temple there but I couldn’t summon the energy to take my shoes off in that altitude for a quick note of thanks to God!
  3. the ride into Pangong Lake wasn’t easy. Although it was only around 50km from Chang La pass, the road was super busy and we had to cross many more mini streams. There was also some occasional desert like surface, and a lot of bouldery bits which proved to be a bit of a challenge for me on the bike. Hannes seemed to have no problems and even gave his beloved Enfield a pet name, “Black Beauty”. The desert like surface sent my bike and I dancing dangerously on many occasions
  4. eventually, we reached the beautiful Pangong lake after several hours of riding and found ourselves a nice warm Swiss style hut with a proper toilet. Upon Hannes’ insistence, we took a cold shower (my butt froze)
  5. it took me a while to get myself warmed up again as I had wet feet from not wearing proper biking boots. I was wearing Gorerex running shoes and all the streams en route were no match for these shoes. I was thinking of ways to make some makeshift poncho-boots for the next day’s ride to avoid getting frozen feet again!

PS. The irony of the day was that no one had asked us for our permits! All that time we spent getting a Swaziland permit for Hannes was unnecessary!

Chang La pass - on the way to Pangong Lake

Chang La pass – on the way to Pangong Lake

On the way to Pangong Lake - a wild yak

On the way to Pangong Lake – a wild yak

Pangong Lake - where 3 Idiots was shot. There is a Rancho Cafe there

Pangong Lake – where 3 Idiots was shot. There is a Rancho Cafe there

Our Swiss style hut in Pangong Lake

Our Swiss style hut in Pangong Lake

The hut even had a couch

The hut even had a couch

Three quarters of this lake is in Tibet and 1 quarter in India

Three quarters of this lake is in Tibet and 1 quarter in India

 

2015-07-19, Pangong Lake to Nubra Valley via a challenging shortcut!

  1. we decided to take a shortcut to Nubra Valley from Pangong Lake. The shortcut was questionable as the road conditions were unknown but it promised to save us around 50km of riding as we would directly end up at Nubra Valley instead of going through Leh again
  2. the “shortcut” started off with a stream though which half the bike got submerged. Again, hero Hannes somehow managed to cross the stream without killing his engine. My bike stalled. I waited for Prashant and Hannes to rescue me. My feet got totally wet. It took me a while to get the engine going again. Then I met two army guys who told me that the road ahead was extremely bad and that it would be wise to turn back to avoid punctures. We dismissed his suggestion and rode on
  3. at some point, the “road” was non existent. Each boulder I guided the bike over felt like the next sureshot setting for a fall. And, fall I did. Two times. First one was in a stream where I misjudged the size of the boulder. Luckily, it was a minor fall. The bike was still standing although my right mirror broke. What I found harder was to gather myself and recover in the high altitude conditions after each fall!
  4. I have to say – the shortcut was beautiful no doubt but to admire the beauty was a challenge, especially when I felt like I was losing control of the bike. On serval occasions, it felt like I was on a camel, not an Enfield. Fortunately, the bike behaved and it seemed like we were somehow going to make it to Nubra Valley but just a mere 5km from Nubra, we had our first major unstoppable force of nature greeting us. A part of the road was blown away by a recent Made by Nature stream and the resulting deluge meant only two things (1) stay there and wait for the army guys to clear the stream (2) ride back!!! I definitely didn’t want to go back. No way in hell was I going to go through those boulder roads again (I had just narrowly escaped falling down more times than I could recall!) Staying there was a questionable idea as well as there was no guarantee of a foreseeable fix. The army guys couldn’t divert the stream channel as some sacred tree was in the way. So, we improvised on (2) and decided to get to Leh via a “Wari La” pass. Some random truck driver told us that the road condition to Wari La pass was “ok”
  5. I was expecting a puny 4300m pass but Wari La turned out to be the mother of all passes. At 5300m in altitude, it was snowing on top, there was ice on the road and quite some streams were pretty hard to negotiate. My hands were frozen. The views were simply superb but only when admired in hindsight! I saw two gigantic vultures but didn’t have the energy to get my camera out! Hannes managed to get some pictures of them
  6. we lost daylight and had to ride back into Leh in the dark. I was blinded by the powerful headlights of oncoming traffic in the night but it was manageable
  7. we reached Leh at 9pm and covered roughly 254km in one day and went over a 5300m pass where it was snowing! Quite a “shortcut”. We were finally back in Room 403 of Grand Willow hotel in Leh
On the way to Nubra Valley

On the way to Nubra Valley

Some of the road junctions were impossible to cross

Some of the road junctions were impossible to cross

We were stuck here! No way we could cross this stream

We were stuck here! No way we could cross this stream

Deciding on Wari La Pass while perched on this log

Deciding on Wari La Pass while perched on this log

More streams to cross

More streams to cross

A marmut

A marmut

 

Vulture on the way to Wari La Pass

Vulture on the way to Wari La Pass

It was snowing on Wari La

It was snowing on Wari La

My hands were frozen. Wari La was at 5300m above sea level

My hands were frozen. Wari La was at 5300m above sea level

2015-07-20, Leh (rest day)

  1. today being our well deserved rest day, we got up late and went on a leisurely walk to a donkey sanctuary. Some kind person set up a place for old and injured donkeys where they could spend the last few years of their lives in comfort instead of letting them die a painful death outside
  2. we then visited a rock museum which was quite impressive. I had no idea that Ladhakh was home to so many precious minerals
  3. the evening was spent watching a movie about Ladhakh. Quite a good introduction to Buddhism and the beauty of Ladhakh. Did you know that Ladakh comes from the Tibetan word “La Dags” which means Land of Passes? After the movie, I went to the market to buy rubber boots. My goretex running shoes were no match for the intense stream crossings!

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Leh Market place

Leh Market place

Downtown Leh

Downtown Leh

Leh Marathon! Will do this someday!

Leh Marathon! Will do this someday!

2015-07-21, Leh to Manali (first attempt)
1) the plan was to get up at 6am and head back towards Manali. We did that and left at 7am. I learned that the trouser goes over my newly purchased rubber boots, not under. My boots got wet as I rode the bike through a deep puddle of water. We reached Upshi (50km from Leh) at around 9am when Murphy’s law (what can go wrong will go wrong) greeted us

2) the guy at the checkpoint told us that “Brandy” bridge near Sarchu has been washed away by the torrential downpours the day before. Hence the road was closed. We needed to turn back. We still waited. And waited. Many other bikers and cars were stopped and given similar news. What followed then was a melee of mixed messages. Some guy said that the road would open at 1pm and another guy insisted it would take three days for a new bridge to be put in place. Messages were as confusing as they were ample. Everyone had supposedly heard something. We turned back towards Leh at 1pm after being told by the police guy at the checkpoint that “there was absolutely no point in waiting”

3) having lost our backup day and without any signs of anything improving, we decided to explore buying our way out of the situation. Meaning, we had to book expensive flights out of Leh and pay our bike rental guy many more thousands to get the bikes back to Manali on trucks. We reached the airport at 3pm or so to explore buying tickets but only to discover that it was closed (all planes fly in the morning only). Murphy’s law struck again as Prashant’s bike stopped working. We then split up. We used the remaining two bikes to get to the local mechanic. The mechanic went back with Prashant to the airport to fix his bike while Hannes and I went to the sole travel agent in Leh with a working internet connection to inquire about flight prices. It was INR 25k for a fight to Delhi!

4) after lunch, we asked several more people (police headquarters, Manali taxi stand) about the road condition and eventually, there seemed to be some sort of consensus on the latest news, which was that small vehicles were now being allowed to go through!

5) with this newfound information, we decided to leave at 5.30am the next day to attempt to get to Manali one last time before considering the expensive flying option. To add to the confusion of the route being open, we had another fresh problem to deal with. Apparently, Leh was going to be on strike the next day from 6am to 8pm. No vehicles were to be allowed on the road during this time. To tiptoe around the Leh lockdown, our plan was this: we would leave at 5.30am the following day and reach Upshi by 6.30am. If the road to Manali would be open, we’d take it. If not, we would hang out outside Leh, wait for the lockdown to end, somehow book flight tickets in the interim and come back into Leh after 8pm to try and make a Thursday/Friday morning flight!

6) nature, strikes, breakdowns… We had seen it all in one day! Getting out of our room 403 at Grand Willow hotel was a challenge!

We had a hard time leaving this place

We had a hard time leaving this place

We visited the Leh Palace in the afternoon

We visited the Leh Palace in the afternoon

The old Leh palace

The old Leh palace

The Gongpa

The Gongpa

2015-07-22, Leh to Manali (second attempt)

  1. We got up not at 5.30am but even sooner, at 4.30am ready to take on the 450km ride to Manali. We said another sly goodbye to the hotel room and hoped we wouldn’t see it again anytime soon
  2. Less than 25 minutes into the ride which started at 5.20am, we saw many bikers signaling us to turn around. We eventually figured out that the guys who were striking had created a road block up ahead. No vehicle could leave Leh! It was not even 6am (the supposed beginning of the lockdown) but the striking hooligans seemed to have gotten themselves an unfair early start. About turn. Hello again Room Number 403 in Grand Willow Hotel. Looks like we’ve met before! Time: 6.15am.
  3. We had lost our contingency day and one day of our actual journey to Manali! Now, we had to do the ride to Manali in a mere two days to make our Hong Kong flight in time. And, that didn’t allow any room for error at all. A breakdown, a fall, more road blocks and we would get stuck in India! Our flight out to HK was on Saturday night and we still had to get to Delhi from Manali
  4. we thought up a series of plans. Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, etc, etc. We again opted to buy our way out of the problem by purchasing air tickets to Delhi and paying the bike guy to send someone to Leh who could take the bikes back. New challenge: there were no flights available until the week after! Our only other solution was to ride back to Manali in two days. No room for error
  5. In order to while away time, we visited Leh Palace in the afternoon
  6. Thanks to the strike, we had one less day to return to Manali

Target: Time: Two days. Distance to cover: 450km

2015-07-23, Leh to Manali (third attempt)

  1. Get up time was 0330. Departure time 0400. We were ready to kick some serious butt today. Two days of intense riding through to Manali to get us the heck out of Leh! Thirty minutes into our cold and damp morning ride, I almost got caught in a muddy section of the road and my front wheel got ensnared. I was revving my engine real hard and real loud at 0430 to extricate myself and my bike from this newly formed slush. Prashant did a dance tune on the slush while Hannes almost ran into a cow!
  2. the day seemed fine and we were all ready to do around 200-something km on the bike. We reached Upshi with bated breath and were quite surprised to see a bunch of Enfields waiting before us! They managed to get up even before 3.30! One of them told us that she had gotten up at 2am in the anticipation of a long day ahead! BUT… Nature had its final say! There are two ways out of Leh. One of them got hit by a landslide (road via Tso Moriri) and the other one had a section of the road swept away! (Road via Rumtse – the way we came). Meaning, we were once again (for the third time) stuck in Leh! The Tso Moriri route might have not been an option to begin with as it was 170km longer. Not something we could do in two days anyway!
  3. three days, three attempts. Three failures. Stuck in Leh. Stuck in Leh. Stuck in Leh. We had to come up with a Plan D to get us out of Leh and in time for our Hong Kong flights. We didn’t sit at Umshi waiting for the roads to get fixed (as we did two days back!) Instead, we rode to the airport to check for available flight tickets out of Leh. None was available. We then went back to our usual hotel where the staff once again greeted us with a smirk on their faces. “Never has someone been unsuccessful so many times”, said the hotel guy. It didn’t make us feel better. What did make us feel better was the news that Ladakh was experiencing a “cloud burst” which only happens once in about 5 years. At least, we weren’t carrying any jinx. It was not our rotten luck but it was Leh and the unique weather that was to blame for our inability to escape from our beloved hotel room!
  4. after showering and “downloading” at Room 403 of Grand Willow hotel, we went to a travel agent hoping for last minute cancelations. Finally, Lady Luck smiled at us and we got three tickets out of Leh for the next day at an exorbitant price of INR 24,000 each ticket. The price of freedom!
  5. we negotiated with our bike rental guy to send someone over to our hotel to pick up the bikes. Then we went for our final joy ride on the bike to a place called Nimmu on the national highway #1. We saw the Indus Valley river and a hill called Magnetic Hill which is somehow supposed to pull vehicles upwards against gravity, towards its peak. It seemed like a bunch of baloney
  6. we came to know later on that the landslide on the Tso Moriri route wasn’t fixed until about the evening. So, waiting at Rumtse would have been a waste of time as we would have been out of time anyway. We had made a good decision by choosing to return quickly upon discovering that the roads were closed. That way, we at least got the last few seats on the plane to Delhi the following day
  7.  we concluded what seemed like our final day in Leh (this time for real) with some sumptuous dinner in celebration of our bike ride into Leh and our three attempted rides back! Hannes added that “if I come back to this hotel room tomorrow, I will hang myself”
On the way to Village Nimmu

On the way to Village Nimmu

Indus Ruver

The Indus River

The Indus River

This river runs from Tibet to Pakistan via India

This river runs from Tibet to Pakistan via India

2015-07-24, Leh to Hong Kong, via Delhi

  1. we got up at 4.30am to catch our 7am fight out to Delhi. Hannes asked if he should leave some luggage behind just in case. We had come back 3 times in the past 3 days anyway. Would we really be able to leave Leh?
  2. I wanted to get the pilot to do a low flying pass over Upshi. If we could see both roads to Manali open, we could always parachute down to ride the bikes back to Manali
  3. all the three of us said goodbye to Room 403 at Grand Willow hotel and hoped that the plane wouldn’t get canceled! If the roads can shut two times in two days and if a strike can stop us on the third day, then a plane cancelation isn’t really far off the realm of imagination
  4. the sky was clear blue outside and the day was perfect! It probably was a good day for riding but … it was also one for flying! We were ready to fly home!
  5. we reached Delhi without incident at 8am and said bye to Prashant. Hannes and I flew out to Hong Kong in the night
Goodbye Leh, for real!

Goodbye Leh, for real!

I almost thought we wouldn't be able to leave Leh

I almost thought we wouldn’t be able to leave Leh

A nice statue of the sun in Delhi airport

A nice statue of the sun in Delhi airport

Summary:

Snow capped mountains, lakes, desert like landscape, ice, snow, high altitude passes… we had seen it all by riding 1255km around Ladakh on Royal Enfields. We’d also seen man made pollution, landslides, experienced plans being forced to change due to nature’s intervention and plans being disrupted due to man made strikes.

This trip has definitely had the hallmark of yet another kick ass adventure in our beautiful Planet Earth. The more I travel and immerse myself in the beauty of nature, the more captivated I become with what our planet has to offer! I will miss my Royal Enfield. And, next time, I think we should avoid biking in Ladakh during the July monsoons!

Thanks to Hannes for the photographs.

Julley. (That’s some kind of greeting in Ladakhi).

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Motorbiking in Chiangmai (and drinking plenty of coconut water) – April 2015

Photos are here.

A 4-day window of public holidays in April could mean only one thing. Actually, wait. It could mean two things: (1) Run around in the hills of Hong Kong (2) Take a plane to wherever and explore the beauty of this “wherever” place.

Well, that “wherever” place in April 2015 happened to be Chiangmai, in Northern Thailand.

My Kiwi travel companion Brendan, thanks to the perks of being a teacher, was already in Thailand about a week ahead of me. Given both of us are rather easy going and couldn’t be bothered to do much of research, we had originally settled on a touristy style 4-day itinerary with a tour group. Something like spend-the-evening-in-an-exotic-village on the first day, visit-an-elephant-camp the next day, and so on – you get the picture. Of course, an obligatory elephant ride was also very much on the cards. These activities all sounded good but the “tour group” part was a bit of a dampener, because deep down inside, neither Brendan nor I, is a big fan of something that is too touristy. So, given Brendan’s teaching perks and the extra week he was spending in Thailand, he decided to do a bit of research on motorbiking around Chiangmai, all the way to the border of Burma. Now, that got me excited. As much as I love elephants and “an exotic village”, some boilerplate Tour #1 isn’t as fulfilling as a motorbike ride around Thailand, soaking in the scenic beauty of the picturesque landscape and feeling the gush of the mountain air.

Brendan’s research revealed this:

“The roads around Chiang Mai are some of the most scenic in the country.

One of the best known is the Mae Hong Son Loop, a 600-kilometer journey that starts from Chiang Mai, and, traveling counterclockwise, passes through Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang before returning to the starting point.

Driving yourself is the best way to do this multiday excursion — car and motorbike rental shops are found all over the city — allowing you to stop to admire the mountainous landscape, visit small villages and swim beneath waterfalls.”

Now, we’re talkin’.

April 2nd, 2015
I landed at Chiangmai airport and quickly zipped through the immigration queue (thanks to the APEC card). I grabbed a shared taxi from the airport to Spicy Thai backpackers (my intended humble abode for the night).

I met Brendan there who looked a tad tired but was still in high spirits. He was talking to a tall tourist. Judging by the length of that guy’s beard, it looked to me like he must have been spending quite some time on the move.

Air Asia doesn’t lose an opportunity to make money – advertisements on the overhead compartment

Our first stop was Tony’s Big Bike shop and Brendan revealed his true personality by showing off the girly bicycle he had rented. (It even had a little flower basket). I naturally made fun of him and told him that I didn’t buy his “this was the only bike available” excuse. The joke was on me though because after lunch at the equivalent of a Thai Cha Changeng, I had to sit behind that girly bike and ride with Brendan all the way to Tony’s Big Bike shop. What a debut! Two dudes on a girly bicycle setting off to rent big motorbikes from a Big Bike shop!

Brendan and his girly bike

Lunch at Thai Cha Chanteng

The owner was too busy smoking his cigarette so luckily, he didn’t notice our grand not-so-macho entry.

After some negotiation, we were the proud renters of two motorbikes. A Honda 250cc for me and (the next morning) a semi-automatic bike for Brendan who was making his debut on his first road trip.

We then headed for a monastery on top of a hill. I called the place “The Stoop” but it was really called Doi Suthep. It was a Buddhist monastery which had this calming and serene feeling to it. Feeling there and listening to the chants felt as though time was slowing down.

Doi Suthep monastery – a very serene atmosphere

The Buddhist temples are remarkably similar to Indian temples

You can donate to any cause you choose — quote innovative instead of having a one-size-fits-all donation box

There was a “Phuping place” sign everywhere. Wonder what that means. Place to poop?

I also started my coconut drinking spree after our visit to Dui Suthep. As legend would have it, by the end of our little adventure in Chiangmai, I would have gone through around 20 coconuts in 4 days! And, not to forget Thai street food. Very cheap. I ate so much that for the first time among all of my little getaways, my eating expenses exceeded my accommodation expenses!

To conclude the day’s affairs, Brendan went for a little test ride on the 250cc Honda and had his very first minor accident as he fell off the bike while trying to turn without putting his foot down.

Our guesthouse – Khaosung in Chiangmai

April 3rd, 2015
It was time to begin the 600km Mae Hong Song loop under scorching weather.

Riding around 40kms away from Chiangmai, we took a little detour from the Mae Hong Song loop and reached Mae Tang National Park. I thought one could enter these parks for free but being “foreigners”, we were charged 300 bucks each. (Had I learnt the two Thai words that I know now, we may have passed off as locals.)

Getting ready to ride 600kms

Our loyal vehicles

Mae Tang National Park

The first stop within Mae Tang National Park was a very interesting geographical formation called “Pha Chor”. I found it rather hard to believe that it was all natural formed. The symmetry was stunning. Brendan put his photography skills to good use by looking for “a natural frame”. He used other cool phrases which I don’t remember now. But, I blame any rubbish pictures that I’ve taken on my camera, not my knowledge of photography or lack of thereof.

Pha Chor — These are natural geographical formations, not an old construction

Brendan admiring the formation

Anyway, after Pha Chor-ing, we headed for yet another National Park called Doi Inthanon National Park. We were greeted with the usual “300 bucks foreigner fee” but two magic words meant we could go in for free. No, not “pretty please” or “thank you” but “Mae Chaem”. Allow me to explain. Doi Inthanon has two entry points and two exit points. One is near Chiangmai and the other is near a place called Mae Chaem. So, for some reason, if one were to enter at Chiangmai and exit at Mae Charm, it’s free! All you have to tell the lady at the check point is that you are headed towards Mae Chaem. There’s a 300 buck saving tip.

10 coconuts a day, keeps the doctor away

So, what’s in Doi Inthanon National Park? Three things mainly: waterfalls, the highest point in Thailand (the Doi Inthanon summit at 25xx meters) and some cool treks. By the way, on the subject of treks and air quality, I have to mention this – around Easter, the farmers burn a lot of rice fields so there is this prevailing smog in the air in Chiangmai. The air tends to clear up following rains in late April. So, if you’re traveling to Chiagmai in the first week of April to benefit from the public Easter holidays, don’t expect sunshine and crystal clear skies. Well, you will get sunshine but not crystal clear skies!

Doi Inthanon National Park

Wachirathan Waterfalls

You can feel the water splashing past you!

We went for a little trail run by the summit when all of a sudden a lady appeared and pointed towards a document that read “going without a guide is dangerous”. She, of course, wanted 200 bucks to escort us to safety. Given we had saved 300 bucks in entrance fees, we paid this 200 but disappeared into the wilderness before she could catch up with us.

Going on a trail run

The sub-alpine meadow starts at a much higher elevation here

There were many zen moments on this little trail run.

Words of wisdom: The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even heard. They must be felt from the heart

This tree has to learnt to survive without leaves as it very windy up here

The trail


Listen to nature’s voice.

Be still, be quiet, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the forest. Listen to the sounds of the falling leaves, the restless wind, the swaying branches, the trickling stream, sweet chirping of birds, humming of insects’ delicate wings. Not the variety, subtlety and complexity of the forest symphony. Immerse, absorb and enjoy.

Brendan experiencing a moment of serenity

There was a guest book at the end of the trail and I wrote “Thailand Rocks!” and drew a nice smiley face next to it. I then passed the pen to Brendan who was beside me. Enlightened by the newfound serenity in the forest, Brendan added his little poetic touch to their guest book.

“The restless mind is harnessed in the symphony of the forest. Lonely, wandering, tortured souls are brought peace” – Brendan Lee

(I would have written something more deep than “Thailand Rocks” had I known he was going to write something as beautiful as that!)

After the trail run, we headed towards the summit Doi Inthanon.

The highest spot in Thailand – it was about 15 degrees over here and 33 degrees centigrade at ground level

After our adventure in Doi Inthanon National Park, we descended down scenic, windy roads into Mae Chaem.

We searched for a guesthouse and a very friendly lady pointed us in the right direction. She also invited us to her coffee shop. We politely declined and continued to search for the guesthouse.

Eventually, we found one by the back alley of the town. We had one big bed in a super hot room with one rather noisy fan. Hmm… “could have been worse” is what I was thinking, but then it did get worse! (Murphy’s law!) The toilet was located in mosquito land and had lizards and cockroaches for guests! Well, not a deal breaker. I knew I could “hold it in”. (After all, I did survive almost a week in Xin Jiang simply by “holding it in”). The “shower area” was also… let’s say “interesting”. It was essentially a shower (which I was grateful for) in an outdoor area. In place of a tiled or a concrete floor, there were rubbles. Anyway, no biggie.

Mosquitoes and lizards were omnipresent and occasionally a leaf would fall from high above, giving this bathroom setting a sort of eerie feel to it. And, taking a few more steps from the designated shower area would mean that you would come under plain view of the residents in the upper storey. So, before I could go in for a shower, I carefully admired the lizards in the backdrop and switched the light off. My thinking was that in case a lizard were to jump on me, I would leapfrog to my right but would still maintain my manly dignity as the residents upstairs wouldn’t be able to see me in the dark. Thankfully, I did survive my shower and happily reatined my dignity, although a falling leaf from up above in the darkness got me a little uneasy. Bold Brendan claimed that he had “nothing to hide” and went for his “shower” but he almost banged his head against the thatched roof above as he couldn’t quite see in the dark! (I didn’t tell him that I had switched off the light and given the primitive state of the “shower”, I don’t think he was expecting a light there).

A nice drawing welcomes us to the guesthouse at Mae Chaem

Interesting washbasin

This is the shower area. Home to the person taking the shower and also home to cockroaches, mossies and lizards. In plain view of the residents above

The toilet. The washbasin was home to several dozen red ants. The toilet was home to mossies and cousins (flies/lizards/roaches)

April 4th, 2015

Motorbike loses “motor”
In my growing enthusiasm to say goodbye to that questionable shower and toilet, I got up early, took my “goodbye” photos of the shower and toilet and waved a bigger goodbye to the guesthouse as I sat on the motorbike. And then, Murphy’s law struck like a hardened hammer on a fragile nail.

I inserted the key into the motorbike’s ignition, turned it to ‘On’ position and nothing. Nada. Zilch. The motorbike seemed as dead as a fish out of water. This situation called for superb mental state management, not just because I had no idea how to fix the bike, but because I also had to get back into the very guesthouse that I had so enthusiastically just said goodbye to!

Biting the bullet, I had a déjà vu as I went back into the guesthouse to deposit my rucksack, then Brendan and I got on his bike to see if we could find someone in town to come and fix mine. That didn’t go so well. One guy we met who looked like he could fix stuff couldn’t understand a word of English. Sign language – too complicated. Time – 6.45am when everything was mostly shut.

As the odds were against us, the lady who invited us for coffee the previous day suddenly showed up. She spoke good English and suggested that we go to her brother’s house – her brother was a mechanic of sorts. She came with us on her bike, introduced us to her brother, who in turn, came with us to inspect my broken down bike. He then announced that he had to take my bike to his home garage to take a closer look. How would you move a broken down bike? Perhaps in Hong Kong on a truck, but in Chiangmai, Chaem’s brother pulled a little James Bond style trick. He asked me to sit on my bike, he then briefly disappeared and then reappeared on my rear view mirror. He was riding his scooter using his left hand and his right hand pushed against the back of my bike and all of a sudden, I was “riding” my bike. Defunct engine, but mobile! It worked like a charm. At one point, it seemed like we could do the entire Mae Hong Song loop that way!

As Chaem’s talented brother got to work on my broken down bike, Brendan and I started talking to Chaem to learn more about her. What a kind person she was! Not only did she come in at the right time to find a solution to my broken down bike, she also invited us to have a free coffee tasting session at her shop once the bike was fixed. She was one of those inviduals who you meet and never forget. Kind, selfless and giving. Our conversation with Chaem was interrupted as my bike suddenly sputtered to life in the background. Chaem’s brother had somehow fixed it! What a relief that was.

We went back to our guesthouse to pick up my rucksack but this time, I refrained from expressing enthusiastic goodbyes to ward off any more surprises or unintended manifestations of Murphy’s law. I inserted the key into the motorbike’s ignition, switched it to ‘On’ position and heaved another big sigh of relief to see the LCD dashboard spring to life. We then took up Chaem on her coffee offer. I’ve never felt so welcome in a shop before! Her caring attitude towards people and life was enlightening.

Chaem’s brother fixes my motorbike

Chaem’s coffee shop

Our group photo

Brendan comes of “biking” age
We exchanged goodbyes with Chaem and set off on our way from Mae Chaem to Mae Hong Song.

Makeshift petrol station

We asked a couple of people here and there for directions and eventually hit a dirt road. The road had many steep turns and there was a lot of lose gravel on it. During one such sharp bend on the road, I saw Brendan making the sharp left turn, then came a loud noise of chassis hitting hard ground and the engine sputtering to a stop.

Panic surged through me. My mind was racing with thoughts like the traffic on a busy highway. I quickly parked my bike and ran up to Brendan and saw him groaning with pain, trapped under his bike. His leg was stuck under the weight of the chassis. I feared the worst and tried to calm my mind down before considering my next moves. I lifted his bike freeing his leg from underneath the chassis, then I pushed the bike to the side of the road, parked it there and went back to Brendan to see him still lying down on the road in agony. I helped him get up, made him sit by the side of the road and did a quick check on him. He was bleeding but, fortunately, all his wounds were superficial. Phew! I can’t even recall the last time I felt that relieved. The motorbike fix in the morning didn’t even come close.

Knowing that Brendan was fine, I forced him to smile and declared that he had finally come of “biking” age. I told him that every biker at some stage of his life, has probably fallen of the bike and learnt a lesson. This first fall is crucial to becoming a pro biker. And, what was Brendan’s lesson? Never take a sharp bend on the road on the third gear. Important lesson.

Bleeding but smiling Brendan. It was very scary to see him lying down in pain!

An off-road adventure leads to more falls
Falling of the bike became the norm as we somehow ended up motorbiking on a never-ending off-road trail which really isn’t meant for motorbiking. It all started when we asked two kids for directions to Mae Hong Song. They accompanied us on their own bikes for about a kilometer and then disappeared. I was pretty sure that they had sent the two of us into unchartered territory on a wild goose chase because the “road” didn’t quite exist. Imagine riding a motorbike on Plover Cove trail in Hong Kong. This was pretty much like that! Brendan came of biking age many times! And, as for yours truly, sometimes even experienced monkeys fall from trees, or as in this case, fall from bikes. (I’m not a monkey though). We rode up what looked like steep scree slopes as our engines whined and cried. Then we held our nerves with bated breath and prepared ourselves for the dangerous ride down the other side of the slope. We were on first gear trying to delicately balance the bike by avoiding the lose gravel and large stones on the slippery surface made of loose rocks. Tightrope walking must have been easier. In fact, I can sum up our experience in this tailor-made version of Police’s song.

Every slope you take
Every move you make
Every time you brake
Every fall you take
I’ll be watching you…

At one point, I decided to turn data roaming on on my phone to figure out where we were on the map. Alas! Despite my rare and desperate move to pay ridiculous roaming charges, there was no signal. And then, history repeated itself. Brendan fell. I fell. And our version of the song from Police.

Every slope you take
Every move you make
Every time you brake
Every fall you take
I’ll be watching you…

I’ve got to say this though – neither Brendan nor I complained despite the predicament we found ourselves in. We were both looking for a solution to the problem and willing to weather any storm, or in this case, any slope. Ok, fine. You got me. Maybe I complained a little bit. But, Brendan didn’t!

These slopes got harder and harder and never seemed to end

Brendan trying to calm himself down following more falls

The Gods of mercy finally smiled upon us after we had just barely survived yet another grueling rubble slope. We saw a village and more importantly, the dirt road that lead us out of there. After what we had been through, looking at dirt road instead of something like a scree slope felt like a big treat to the eyes. That dirt road eventually lead us to a proper Tarmac road. I would have almost kissed it.

We finally extricated ourselves out of the off-road mess!

We then rode up to the first store we could find to fix Brendan’s injuries. As we applied Hydrogen Peroxide on his leg injuries, he let out a shriek much to the amusement of the two kids in the store who lovingly fanned some air onto his legs to alleviate his pain.

Brendan gets his leg injuries fixed

The day’s adventure finally ended once we reached Mae Hong Song. And, as always, I went on my coconut water drinking spree. The day’s affairs meant at least 5 coconuts to recover.

And, by the way, I asked Brendan if he’d do by himself what we did on the bike today if someone were to give him USD 10M for it. “No”, came the unequivocal response but being the kind guy he is, he did say that he’d give it a go if doing it would mean that he could solve one of the world’s biggest problems.

By the lake in Mae Hong Song

April 5th, 2015
Thanks to the intense off-road adventure from the day before, I made sure that we knew exactly where we were going today. No scree slopes. No off-road adventure. Just road biking!

The day naturally started with coconut water plus street food

We rode all the way to a Chinese-style village by the border between Thailand and Burma, while temporarily joining a parade en route.

We participated in this parade briefly

Ban Rak Tai – A Chinese village by the border of Thailand and Burma

The border between Thailand and Burma

Brendan is in Thailand and I am in Burma

Brendan is in Burma and I am in Thailand

Apparently, there were trenches on both sides and quite of lot of soldiers had died there during the wars from the past. We asked the soldier on the Thai side if we could take a couple of pictures in the No Man’s land between Thailand and Burma. He let us. I was extra polite with him as has had a huge M16 by his side!

The soldier guarding the border

After bidding goodbye to Burma, we rode to a “Fish Cave” on the way to our destination for the day, Pai.

The Fish Cave – hmm, Brendan seemed to enjoy feeding the fish some insects! Basically, it was a puddle of water with some large fish in it! The glorified title “Fish Cave” is a bit of an exaggeration. The only eventful thing happened here when I accidentally dropped my motorbike keys into a large pond with several hundred fish in it. Luckily, the fish didn’t eat my key and even more luckily, a kind lady picked up the key for me! Had a fish eaten my key, that would have been tragic for both the fish and I!

The Fish Cave

We came all the way here to this “Fish Cave” to feed some fish in a puddle of water?

Pai seemed pretty westernized compared to the other places we had been to on the loop thus far. There was plenty of street food and the contents of a couple of more coconuts found their way to my stomach, along with some grilled corn and yam.

Welcome to the Hotel Pailifornia….

Aiya! No Hong Konger will rent a motorbike from this place!

PaiHollwood – this is where the Hollywood actors train

April 6th, 2015
No trip to Thailand can be complete without an elephant ride. These mammoth creatures are vegetarian and need to eat 250kgs a day!

We rode to Noy’s Elephant Camp for a ride on the back of a very docile elephant called Mai. Brendan helped out the elephant by swatting a mosquito on its back.

our elephant Mai

This is how you board an elephant

Feeling quite powerless on top of an elephant

This is what the elephant would see had it had a rear view mirror

To say “thank you” to the elephant, we gave him several dozen bananas. He gobbled them up almost as fast as I’d swallow coconut water on a hot day.

A dozen bananas gets eaten in 10 seconds!

The other thing to do in Thailand is of course, to swim in natural waterfalls. This was next on the agenda to conclude this 5-day adventure.

Mork-Fa Waterfalls – on the way from Pai to Chiangmai

And, once we reached Chianmai, the final onslaught of eating came in the form of noodles, veggie rice, ice creams, veggie snacks, coconut water and more coconut water. In fact, we had worked out that we could drink 17 coconuts on the 500 Bahts that I had remaining.

No trip to Thailand is complete without a tuk tuk ride

To justify this much eating, Brendan suggested that we do some exercise in the park to get rid of all the accumulating fat. And, that’s exactly what we did. About 5km of running interspersed with exercises in between. I thought I’d have the Strava record for this run but I could only manage the second fastest time!

Anyway, that run (plus more coconut water) concluded a truly awesome, kick ass 5-day motorbiking road trip around Northern Thailand.

I will finish with a quote:

“There is a sunrise and a sunset everyday. You can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty” – From the movie Wild

A Kick Ass Adventure to El Nido, Palawan

The origins of another “kick ass” trip
Dark, cold, wet, windy and cloudy. Those were the words that described Hong Kong’s weather in the beginning of March, 2014. Naturally, the only way to counter that was through beaches, sports and ample sunshine! And, thus originated the humble beginnings of yet another “kick ass” trip to the Philippines – the land of sunshine, turquoise waters, pristine beaches and plenty of buko juice. (That’s Tagalog for coconut juice as we learnt during this trip).

Before I continue with this photo blog to summarize our trip to El Nido in the Philippines, I will have to tell you what makes a trip truly “kick ass”. You see, the “kick ass” adjective can’t be used to describe just any old vacation. No Sir. A vacation has to be truly, and I mean truly, worthy of being given that description. It has to be totally kick ass. When you hear those words being ascribed to a vacation, you just know it’s going to be, well, kick ass! And, why so? Because, of the secret ingredients, of course! Namely, mountain biking, kayaking, motorbiking, island hopping, snorkeling and, the best of all, truly and outstanding “kick ass” company!

March 4th/5th 2014
Dom, Read more

HKTR’s first annual Summit in Sipalay plus capture of Mt. Kanlaon in the Philippines

HKTR’s first annual Summit in Sipalay plus capture of Mt. Kanlaon in the Philippines

All photos here.

Leaders to meet and discuss economic affairs of the world
We’ve all heard of the APEC Summit, Kyoto Summit, United Nations Summit and blah, blah, blah. Forget all that — an event far more important and exciting than any of the above –The Hong Kong Trail Runners’ Summit– was to be held in Sipalay, Philippines in February 2013. Key world leaders Martijn, Vivien and yours truly were expected to meet there to solve the problems of the world over some beers. And, all this while looking over the beautiful sunset from the bar stools of Artistic Diving Resort, Sipalay in The Philippines.

Leaders very busy at work solving world problems

Read about the Summit Achievements up ahead

“Holdin’ it in” and practicing Putonghua in Northern Xinjiang during October 2012

“Holdin’ it in” and practicing Putonghua in Northern Xinjiang during October 2012

All pictures here.

Holdin’ what in?
Read on and you will be enlightened. But until then, here’s the story.

Strange departure from the original plan
The original plan called for a trip to Vietnam in October 2012. The group was supposed to consist of 6 of us. That number first went down to 5, then 4, then 3, then eventually … 2. We could have still gone to Vietnam but then came one of our brainwaves. Why not do something MORE adventurous?

Enter Xinjiang in Northwest China. Picture Muslim music playing in the background. Then picture eating some nans (bread). Picture kebab and lamb. Picture thousands of square kilometers of desert and contrasting grasslands and majestic mountains. That’s Xinjiang. It occupies 1/6th of the total land in China. It’s home to several distinct tribes. It’s a mysterious land – a land far, far away geographically, ecologically and, of course, spiritually to Central in Hong Kong!

So, Martijn and I decided to be brave and explore Xinjiang. “Brave” because, of the two of us, only I could speak the best Mandarin. And my Mandarin was unfortunately largely limited to “Wo bu ji dou Read more