09 December, 2007

Kuala Lumpur to Singapore to Bangkok

So I was all ready to go, bike packed up, goodbyes said, a pannier full of freshly laundered clothes. All well. Stuart headed off to work at some unhealthy hour of the early Monday morning but the bike was all ready. I said goodbye to Suit Yoo, jumped on the bike and pressed the starter, "click". Not playing. But it was easy to push start on the slight incline outside. Still, it was a long way to Bangkok and I didn't know what was wrong. Always better to break down near a good workshop, rather than way out in the country where the added expense of a pick-up truck is required. I rolled back into KL BMW to see Garry and Jeffery. Same story as before, help yourself to tools, and here's a wee space for you to work in. Perfect. It surely had to be the starter motor itself. Removal of that was fairly easy, and there was an old R80G/S sitting around with a gearbox problem nearby so I quickly swapped its starter into mine. Started first time.

In Scotland, what you do in this situation is take the starter to Forth Auto Electrics in Dunfermline where Craig will recondition it and give you it back in a couple of days with a 50GBP bill. BMW don't do this. If a BMW component has broken down, they can only replace it with a brand new BMW component. 350GBP and a three week wait while we get one from Germany, thank you very much. This is one of the disadvantages. However, Garry of course knew that reconditioning was possible and also just the man to get it done. There was a truck heading back to Sunny's that very afternoon if I'd like a lift with the bike. More perfection.

Two days later I was refitting the reconditioned starter motor. But the solenoid went red hot and it still wouldn't start! What had they done!? I whipped it back out and examined it but could see nothing wrong. Sunny Jr. had a quick glance. "They put the solenoid on the wrong way round - you wouldn't have the part numbers facing inwards." Sharp lad. Turned that round, put the motor back in and 'brrrroom'. But the main problem seemed to be that the Earth connection to the gearbox had stripped its thread, so the connection wasn't just as tight as it should be. This was made obvious by an entertaining display of sparks at the gearbox whenever the starter button was pushed. So I need to keep a close eye on this connection. I can start the bike just by pressing the connection tightly to the bike by hand, but the alternator won't charge the battery as we trundle along unless the Earth connection is tight. And there isn't another connecting point within reach of the cable. Get a longer cable?

Anyway, it was getting close to St Andrew's Night and I was back in the centre of KL not far from the Green Man. I was in my usual hotel and they were giving me a kindly (or was it sympathetic?) discount. I knew the shopkeepers nearby and was even getting discounts from some of them for being a 'regular customer'. The Indian restaurant where I ate most evenings were very friendly now, and I was getting to know their names. I reckoned I'd stay for St Andrew's and then head off. I was already late and what difference a few more days.

I wasn't feeling too great so I didn't get dressed up for the 30th. I wandered along to the Green Man where some few oil-working Scots were gathering for haggis. There was a big official do somewhere else in the city, but these guys thought that was much too formal and organised, "led by toffs from Edinburgh" said one scathing Glaswegian. The haggis was delicious and the mince and tatties were an unexpected wee treat. But so much did these people disdain organisation, that it was a bit of a haphazard shambles and, though Dougie the co-owner did his best, the entertainment was unrehearsed and soon people were drifting out onto the balcony away from the 'din'. Eventually I wandered off with a tin of Irn Bru to the internet Cafe and listened to Tom Morton on Radio Scotland on-line. I e-mailed him a wee note, since I knew him to be a motorcyclist and he was running a wee competition. He was kind enough to respond some time later, by leaving a message on this very blog. Fine chap!

So, all ready to go again but just before that, Linda, one of very few lady taxi drivers, had offered to show me round those sights of KL that I hadn't seen. I was disappointed not to have seen as much as I might have liked due to all these breakdowns, so this was a fair opportunity. She was very funny and we got on well. Those are the steps I had to climb next this giant golden lad.
That evening, back in the cool of the iCaff, a message from William. He'd made it to Singapore but had been having the same engine problems as before since only 18 hours out of Bali. My earlier breakdown on the way up to Ipoh could have been mended easily and in no time if I'd had those tools I'd left behind in Bali and he'd found. And I'd quite like to see Melacca, and old Portuguese town on the Malaysian coast south of KL. It would be foolish to go north when those tools were only a day's ride to the south. They'd be very handy for the next leg home.

A motorway, an iPod, heat, peace. Singapore is bigger than I thought. I had imagined a city clinging to a wee island like Gibraltar or Ceuta. The island's actually quite big and there are lots of smaller islands. I rode around for ages looking for this marina that William mentioned. In common with so many other cities, there are very few informative signposts for self-driving visitors. I suppose it must be assumed that visitors will get taxis. A huge "Marina Walk" was a massive complex. But here was no marina. I was at a dock where pleasure boats left from when a man in a kilt came strolling towards me.

"A Scotsman, not in too much of a hurry, I hope?" I said by way of introduction.
"Not too much, why?" he asked. He was off for a belated St Andrew's bash aboard one of the boats. I got clear directions. "Mind and don't slip and fall in the Eightsome Reel!" They even asked me along, and I was tempted, but I had the bike and needed to find William and these tools.

The Marina was on a wee island where the policy was "NO MOTORBIKES!" I can never understand this sort of discriminatory nonsense, or how people are allowed to get away with it. A lady told me to park the bike over there, unpack it and get a taxi to the marina, some few kilometres away. "But I've just ridden this thing 56,000km (36,000miles) across the planet to get here, and this is the first place on earth I'm not allowed!?" I asked, incredulous. (In fact there was that motorway in Indonesia, but I was betting she wouldn't have known about that!)
"It's company policy, sir. Only residents of the island who have registered their motorcycles are allowed to ride them on the island." The lady said flatly.
"But I only want to visit my friend on his boat for one night, and then I'll leave you in peace. I've been travelling for 15 months to get here, all the way from Scotland and these few last kilometres are out of bounds!?" Laying it on thick!
"I'm afraid it's company policy, sir." But she could see the ludicrous nature of her stance.

We went through the daft pantomime of my asking just which member of the Hitler/Mussolini/Franco family ran this fascist, illegally discriminating company that would part any human from their personal belongings without very good reason? But her stock response was always the same. I wasn't getting round this, though I could see that she was clearly on my side, and probably wanted me to. Neither, however, was I leaving the bike out in the open, miles from where I was staying.

Then I had a wee brain-wave and explained to the lady that I had a very different policy, conflicting with her company's. My policy stated that I could not be parted from the bike for periods of longer than three minutes without it being under some sort of lock and key. What would we do about that? Would she seriously have a person ride all this way on a motorbike not to get to see his long lost best pal and experience the luxurious welcome of his yacht (she couldn't possibly have seen Quickstep!) at the end, for the want of a mere few kilometres? This, at last, my completely uncomprehending frustration, made her giggle. A quick mobile phone call to Mr Hitler's underling later and I was allowed through, "only for one night, but if you want to stay longer we won't mind," she smiled. I thanked her profusely, we laughed, each knowing it was all nonsense and that it wasn't our fault. "Watch out for the guards" she warned as I rode off waving. Eh?

No sooner had she spoken than there were guard huts, barriers (none down!) and guys, some with dogs, jumping out from everywhere with their hands in the air trying to stop me! I was playing at Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape" as I swerved to avoid them, smiling and waving cheerfully as I rode through. No doubt they'd phone in about this two wheeled invader and get told the story. They were all over the place and after stopping to explain to the first ones over the noise of a yapping, slabbering mutt, I was just too tired to go on explaining any more, in broken English, everything repeated four times, in this heat!
"Captain William Turner!" I bellowed as scarily as I could while rapping on the side of Quickstep, after checking he was on board having a nap. He soon appeared looking a wee bit dazed. It was good to see him and the boat again and I was quite disappointed that I couldn't stay longer. His new crew, Tina, a highly capable Norwegian ('Scandahooligan' William said!) who regularly sails her own boat from Bergen to Shetland, also appeared and we all went off for food. A fine evening of reminiscing was had between the three of us, with me offering to help crew Tina's boat across the North Sea, and visit William when he eventually ties up in Povoa de Varzim, just north of Porto, some time late next year.

They were busy organising their Indian visas in the morning so I left them to get on with that after sharing a hearty breakfast. Somehow the Singaporean border guards had not issued me with the correct bits of paper on entry and there was an unnecessary carry on going out. I have to say I was surprised to have found the Singaporeans, not impolite, but not overly helpful either. I'd stopped at several places to ask for directions the day before and had universally been told they didn't know - including taxi drivers - until I met my bekilted compatriot. Ordinarily I've found that if the first I ask doesn't know, they will almost immediately go off and find someone else who does. Not so on Singapore - different, odd.

I stopped the next two nights in Melacca. The Portuguese ran this place from 1511. Sometime later it was taken from them by the Dutch and then from them by the British. But still today the Portuguese cultural influence remains, with a Portuguese 'enclave' still clinging on, speaking a curious dialect. Very interesting place to which I'll have to return one day.

I by-passed KL and went straight for Ipoh to find my pal Foo. He made me a coffee in his shop and we chatted comfortably for a long while, customers coming and going. We arranged to take his girls "to the Mall" later. They were full of fun as they bounced around happily and called me "uncle" - more of a courtesy from one generation to the one above in Malaysia. Not even my true nephews and nieces do that, so this was a bit of a treat. At the Mall they did something with different coloured sand, card and sticky bits of the card to make these brilliant pictures. Like colouring-in with sand. You had to be very careful with the sand, and I was cheerfully amazed to see no mess underneath the wee basins where the children worked away happily.

After dropping the girls off at school next morning, Foo and I had a great breakfast together and I was sad that I couldn't stay any longer to enjoy more of his family's company. But he has his own business to run, I have to get somewhere cool before too much longer, and I've no idea how long it'll take to organise the flying-over-Burma thing. (The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well Aung Sang Soo Kui say we've to call it 'Burma', not 'Myanmar' because this is the name given by the militaristic, undemocratic, idiotic nutcases running the place into the ground now.)

With no bother and on excellent roads, I was in Thailand by the late afternoon. Here the roads were suddenly less good, and the weather was very wet. It was the King's birthday and Thais absolutely love their King, who has been King here for over 60 years and seems pretty good at the job. Where else would so many people be wearing t-shirts celebrating anyone's 80th birthday? "80th birthday celebrations - long live the King!" And they are highly protective of him and even his image. His picture is on the banknotes and they will be seriously annoyed if anyone stands on one of those. The King also loves sailing but some prominent Thai writer got arrested not so long ago for jokingly calling him "the Skipper"! I'll be respectful!

Thailand reminds me a lot of Ethiopia. It has never been colonised, and has kept itself independently together for over 1000 years. Another place with its own time, I've jumped over 1000 years from Indonesia! Here it is the year 2550, since the Buddha died all that time ago. They still use the same number of months, however, and the daily clock works just as places further away from the Equator. The Ethiopian idea would work here if they wanted it to. They have their own very individual language, and while English is the second national language, few speak it very well.

All isn't sweetness and light however, with a separatist group in the south of the country there are heavily armed soldiers everywhere. Big machine guns on top of HumVees and lots of checkpoints. I also saw soldiers patrolling the streets in YaLa where I stopped for the first night. I've not seen that since I stayed in Belfast - with Foo!

The mountains near the border could hide armies though. Very scenic, but wet and rainy which didn't make for great progress. However I was lucky because an e-mail from Foo told me it didn't stop raining for three days in Ipoh after I left. And when it rains around here, it really rains. At one point I rode right into a wee shelter by the side of the road, I think meant for picnickers. It overlooked this big loch.After getting out of the mountains the rain suddenly stopped. Eventually the soldiers disappeared as well, as I got further north. The road smoothed out and I rolled into Bangkok in the dark and got immediately lost. Jim from Darwin (now in Argentina) had recommended a great hostel in the centre of town where I could hide the bike and relax. When I found it I parked up happily and relaxed for a whole day. On the Monday I had to organise the Indian Visa, find a crate and see if there wasn't anyone who could organise the flights quicker than the nine days I was being told it would take. Someone out by the airport said they could do it in 3 days.

The crate wasn't much of problem, Mr Sitti at Bangkok BMW had a pile of them. The Indian visa would take five days anyway, but on the Tuesday when I went to talk to the 3 day lady, she said she'd made a mistake. The nine day lady, Kittima opened on the Tuesday and we met at her office. She thinks it'll take less time than nine days but there's still nothing I can be doing to speed anything up in the meantime. The main problem was that I was not given (and didn't ask for) the correct form at the border. There they stamped my Carnet which is not recognised by Thai Customs. A trip to Thai Customs HQ confirmed that the Carnet was recognised - but not by the Airport Customs people, only the overland Border Customs people. Where I'd crossed the border was three days and 1500km (950miles) back. Customs HQ phoned the border. Someone was flying up, and would bring the book, make me out a form, I could sign it in their presence and all would be well. The book would come to the airport in two days. "But don't hold your breath'" confided one official. I took this to mean that the book may not appear at all. I had a day in hand to sort myself out, and so I thought I'd take things back into my own control.

The Cambodian Border is 240km (150miles) away from the Thai capital city and would make a fine day's round trip run. I could get there, go into Cambodia, re-import into Thailand, get the form I needed and back to Bangkok before nightfall, if I left early enough in the morning. Or I could try.

As the sun rose I rode out of the city and towards the East. After a quiet, straightforward and well-signposted run, just as I approached the border I was stopped by some shouting, waving youths. I needed to buy my visa at the Cambodian Consulate here, on the Thai side, before crossing. 1200Baht (about 20GBP). I then began the procedure of leaving Thailand. All needed fully explained to each individual border guard in broken English. Each shook his head. "There will be trouble on the Cambodian side" was the general agreement. But I could try, and they promised the correct form if I could get back before their shift finished at 6pm. It was 11.30am.

This was risky. I could end up in no man's land with neither side letting me in. I wasn't too sure how this might go. But I was here now! Carnet stamped, passport stamped, out you go, and I was cast into 'no man's land', a strange place full of casinoes and other semi-legal, duty-free daftness. People milled about not looking too much like casino customers. Backpackers scurried by on foot from one side to the other. I pottered slowly along trying to take it all in. Patience and smiling.

I parked the bike up and went into the Cambodian Immigration Office. Here there was a totally impatient and very unsmiling English guy hanging half way through the window of the desk. "No!! You stamp here, not there!!" He was screaming. "Here!" Entirely uncool, this man had clearly lost the plot. "But why have I to stand over there!?" he was raging, but took his passport and stood back a bit. I got the impression that the border guard had intended that he stand in the corner, facing the wall! The next person went up. Stamp, stamp, off you go. The English guy was straight back to the window "you MUST stamp MY passport I was first!!" I thought he might cry. What a tantrum for a grown man. Everyone else was really embarrassed and looked away or at the floor. One friendly local with good English near the man said, "please calm down, you could get into serious trouble" in a very quiet voice. "I have been through this border three times, thank you very much," said the huffy wee man.

I'd been mildly amused at first at this odd stranger 'losing the rag', but it was getting very embarrassing. He really wasn't doing himself any favours at all. I wondered if he was maybe not too well. Then I had a fear that my British Passport might put me in with him. I joined a different queue, I didn't need this to be happening.

There is a strong tradition here in Asia about 'face', or the loss of it, which is a bit like making a fool of yourself. Losing one's temper is a sure way to lose face. Few people like to be told how to do the jobs they're being paid to do. Least of all, I suspect, Immigration Officers. This guy was just crackers. I saw the border guard take the man's passport, look at it briefly and then casually toss it over his shoulder. The guy was really raging now and I honestly thought they would just have to arrest him. He was screaming on about how "that passport was not [his] property but that of Her Majesy Queen Elizabeth blah, blah, blah . . ." Yes, technically, I suppose, correct but it is his responsibility to take care of it. He wasn't doing that! And nobody was listening to him, even if they could understand what he was babbling (and almost bubbling) on about. He was like the stereotypical spoiled child not getting his own way. Ordinarily, I might have tried to calm him down as perhaps the only other fluent English speaker in the room, but the last thing I needed was to be considered anything to do with this man. It looked to me as if, lacking any English, the Immigration Officer was trying to show him who was actually in charge here. Eventually he quieted, powerless, raging. He stood back and others shuffled forwards. I don't think he was even embarrassed at himself, just still angry. I felt sorry for him. Imagine having to live with a temper like that.

Luckily, before I got anywhere too near, the man's passport re-appeared at the window, he grabbed it, checked it and stomped out muttering to himself. Happy travels!

I smiled at the border guard. Couldn't care less where he stamps it. Stamp, stamp, I was out. I got the bike and rode through the border and round a roundabout. There was no tar on the road, just some stones packed in to the mud. But the roundabout was highly decorated and there were some fine statues. Customs was just the other side of the road and I drove up to import the bike. This could take time, and cost a bit of money but it would be worth it to know it was done and I could go back into Thailand and get the correct form. They'd also get a bit of a shock if immediately after importing, I went straight to ask where to export it! It all seemed such a huge nonsensical waste of time. But beaurocratic procedures must be seen to be followed so I went into the office. It was empty. The whole block was empty. The guards outside made the internationally recognised sign for 'eating'. It was lunchtime. Only one official was to be seen, snoring away under a newspaper, his flip-flops looking as if they might fall off.

Cambodia doesn't recognise Carnets either but I had a feeling I might need something to show the Thais. Then I couldn't recall anyone ever asking about that. They asked about the stamp in my passport, but no country had ever asked to see that the bike had been properly stamped out of the previous one.

I went to the 'out' queue of Cambodian Immigration, a much smaller one. Stamp, stamp, out you go. I'd been in Cambodia for about seven minutes.

The Thais made me fill out some forms, and I was away back towards Bangkok within two hours. Should get back before dark.

So three 'firsts', I'd been to Cambodia, but I don't think that counts as a country visited. I once heard that defined as one in which you spend at least one night. A fair definition I think.

Then on the way back - I've been getting lots of waves and thumbs up from people in other vehicles, obviously approving of something or other. Well, this one of them actually opened the car window and offered me a beer! We co-ordinated and I got the beer as we cruised along the motorway - it was pretty cold too! They were delighted. I know it's very, very wrong to drink and drive but it would've been fairly rude not to. It was only a wee tin, and it was very refreshing! I was listening to Aberfeldy at the time on the iPod. All very jolly.

The third thing wasn't nearly as much fun. But it may amuse you. I was coming up behind a pick-up truck full of uncomfortable-looking pigs clearly on their unhappy last trip to the slaughterhouse. Just as I drew up behind, one of them, without any warning or even asking to go, just opened up its bladder - I crouched as best I could behind the screen and saved myself. A wee bit got on my arm but it washed off later. The lady on the moped near me was much less fortunate - she'd no screen, but at least she had a visor!

As the sun dipped I was riding back through Bangkok looking for my digs. I was tired, having been in the sun for over 12 hours, but it had been a successful day.

I delivered all the paperwork to the shippers the following morning and on the way back, consulting the streetmap on the petrol tank and negotiating a quiet one-way street, there came lollopping towards me a very urban looking elephant, being ridden the wrong way and blending well into its surroundings of grey. I only saw it at the very last minute! I think I'll invent a big yellow high-visibility bib for them to wear.

I have new tyres and am waiting for some wee bits coming from Motorworks. Other than that, I'm reading, waiting and touristing with the rest. Should fly out on Friday, or maybe Thursday.

Oh - Stuart "interviewed" me somehow (very technological). This is now available with me over-using the word "fantastic". It was all done in just one take!! So if for some obscure reason you're missing my dulcet tones . . ! Click over on the right - "interview in the Highlander Bar". You get to hear Stuart too of course - sounding far more perfessnial! Enjoy?


At 19/12/2007, 22:30, Blogger Roy said...

Hi Mick - shame you're having to fly over Burma. It's expected to have to cross over seas, but a shame to have to fly over the folly of people. Perhaps you have arrived in India by now?

At 20/12/2007, 22:33, Blogger Tom Morton said...

Hey Mick - have a happy Christmas, wherever you may be!


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