The Plan Travel from Bangkok to spend eight nights in Isaan, initially following the course of the Mekong from Chiang Khan to Khong Chiam, then heading inland to visit the provinces most remote from Bangkok. The Bike Sunday 2nd December 2007: Bangkok – Loei Due to technical problems (the bike wouldn’t restart after refueling shortly after setting off), I had to opt for Plan B and use the CBR150 (or not go at all). It was only a few months old, so reliability should not be an issue, however, I cannot really say it is designed for distance riding. Take it or leave it? Take it! I saw it as a challenge. I had previously used the bike for a couple of 500km+ rides and it was fairly nippy and maneuverable but somewhat lacking power—17bhp to be precise. Exiting Bangkok via Minburi (Nimit Mai), I took the 352 up to Wang Noi and picked up the 1 heading North towards Saraburi. About 30km before Lopburi, the 21 forks off to the right, which I followed all the way up to Phetchabun. I had used this route a couple of times previously, and it is fairly uninspiring flat, straight single and dual carriageway, although the surface is generally pretty good. The last of the sunflowers were attracting a dwindling number of coaches to the few remaining fields before Phetchabun. Judging by the condition of the flowers, I was about a month too late, although I would imagine they are a sight worth seeing if you can arrive early enough in the day before it becomes overrun with day-trippers. It was not until after Lom Sak, 40km north of Phetchabun, when the roads became more fun. The traffic was minimal and the surface good. Plus, the bends were just right, lots of them, none too severe, unwinding across sweeping hills. I find hairpins on roads across steep hills quite tiring and the bends need to be negotiated rather than enjoyed. 38km from Loei I arrived at the picturesque area of Phu Rua. I needed to take a break and re-fuel, and I came across a PTT, which, if there was ever a ‘Most Scenic Petrol Station in Thailand’ competition, this place would win hands down. The spotless forecourt and surrounding area were covered with flowers, landscaped gardens and set against the background of some rolling hills. The toilets were immaculate, too; you had to take your boots off and use the complementary flip-flops to enjoy the facilities, but at least there was no service charge. Throughout the day the weather had been fantastic, sunny and cool, and now, in the late afternoon, it was just about perfect and the riding was thoroughly enjoyable. I pressed on to Loei and enjoyed the last of the bends for the day and set about finding some suitable accommodation. I have a copy of thinknet’s Thailand road atlas at home, and although it is not so good for navigating from one place to another (the page layouts are far too unclear), it is worth the purchase price alone for the section at the back which gives pretty detailed plans of most Thai towns and cities with a population of more than one horse. And, with a bit of forward planning, I had photocopied all of the places I was going to stay at and a few more in case I had a change of heart at any point. The maps list all hotels and even give locations of 7-11s! I had a look at a couple of places in the centre of town, which seemed ok, but having learnt from experience that it is worth spending a little more time as there is often a much better option down the road, I had a further look around. And so it was in this case. Just on the SE edge of the town there was a place called the Sun Palace Hotel—300 baht for a good clean room with a/c although I would have opted for a fan room if they had been available as the weather was pretty crisp. My preference for hotels is mid-range (500-800 baht) as you usually get a good room with a decent sized bed, quite often a bath tub to relax in after a long day in the saddle, more often than not some form of breakfast and reasonable parking. Anyway, 300 baht was well within budget, so I could perhaps splash out the following night. It was getting dark by the time I had washed up and wandered into town. I generally like to arrive wherever I am going by early afternoon, which allows enough time to look around and get vaguely familiar with the new surroundings and to possibly take in at least one piece of local culture, which I think makes any trip that bit more memorable. But, it was too late for any of that sort of thing, so having consulted the Lonely Planet (now, I am not a fan, but to save time looking for places to eat, and looking for the aforementioned cultural highlights, it comes up trumps—I tend to keep it under wraps, though, as I think there is nothing quite as naff as wandering round with an open Lonely Planet in your hand) I found a half-decent steakhouse in the centre of town. There is no substitute for good western food after a long day’s slog on the road. Noodles and rice are ok for pit-stops, but not for refueling at the end of the day. My impression of Loei was that of a relaxed, easy going place, but this was going to be borne out as more of an Isaan characteristic rather than unique to any individual town or city as the week unfolded. Mileage: Bkk-Loei: 564km Monday 3rd December: Loei – Nong Khai As the bike’s 4000km service was coming up, I dropped in at a local Honda dealer for an oil change. Very friendly staff, who, as soon as I spoke some pretty basic Thai, lost most of the normal initial apprehension that is clear in the eyes of almost all Thais when they see a farang approaching. I’ve noticed two recurring characteristics amongst most Thais who I engage in conversation when I travelling on the bike: first, they are amazed that you would consider going anywhere on your own, and second, even the most modest distances are greeted with reactions of incredulous disbelief, and this proved to be no exception with the Honda staff. However, they did their job cheerfully and efficiently, and I was soon on my way. I didn’t get too far, though, as there was quite a tailback at the junction of the intersection of the 201 due to some kind of police traffic control. Quite a few locals had gathered, and I was wondering if there had been an incident of some description, when I saw a marching band approaching followed by a parade that took a good 30 minutes to file its way past. I couldn’t work out what the occasion was, but it was quite a colourful spectacle and time wasn’t an issue as it was a fairly short run up to the border and into Nong Khai. I finally got underway and decided that the direct route to Nong Khai, along the 201 and 211, wasn’t really far enough, so, about 10km north of Loei I turned left onto the 2115, which looked as though it was an interesting road with a few twists, on the map at least. Again the weather was ideal, fresh, sunny and clear, and the detour was worth the effort. However, just around the area where the 2115 joins the 2195 there was a stretch of 7-8km of unpaved road waiting to be resurfaced. It was quite adequate for riding, and I was able to make pretty good progress. Unfortunately, 40 or so km before Chiang Khan, the road was severely potholed over a stretch of 10-15 km, which needed careful negotiation.I knew I couldn’t be too far from my first sighting of the Mekong, and after taking a right-hand bend on a deserted stretch of road I had a double-take to my left as I saw something major through the trees. About 100 metres further on the roadside vegetation cleared, and I had a great view of the river and across into Laos. The first impressions were quite something to behold, as although it was the dry season and the water level was quite low, it was still a fairly awesome sight. I passed through Chiang Khan and slowed down to look for a suitable place to eat, but as nearly always happens, I was through the town in no time and decided to press on. All the rest of the way into Nong Khai along the 211 the river came into and out of sight and the conditions were good, but I felt the best of the roads were, even at that early stage, now behind me. The 211 joins the 2 south of Nong Khai and the Mekong was left behind for a while as you get the feeling of urban civilization, at least for a while. When I get lost arriving in a new town, I think the best way to get your bearings is to find the railway station and things tend to seem a lot clearer after that. However, in Nong Khai, it is simply a matter of finding the river and working out your position relative to the Friendship Bridge into Laos. I found an impressive looking hotel in my price range and was shown the 600 baht and 800 baht rooms (the latter coming with a balcony overlooking the river). I opted for a little extravagance as the river view was quite something, and I was on my way into town at around 3pm. A little worryingly, I noticed a nightclub bolted onto the hotel on the way out and wondered to myself if that was going to be ruining the peace into the early hours. There is an interesting covered market, The Sadet Market, on the quayside and there seemed to be a definite Laos influence adding to the atmosphere. I was pretty hungry as I had not managed to find a 7-11 for a coffee and a Mars bar on the way from Loei, as I had anticipated. However, coming out of the market, I found a bar called ‘Andy’s’ covered in English football memorabilia and offering an all-day breakfast: spot-on! Rarely does the combination of hunger, right type of food and right quality food come together, but when it does the resulting satisfaction is outstanding, and so it was. I checked the menu and made a mental note to come back for some more of the same later on that evening. A workmate had advised me to visit a place called Sala Kaew Ku, a park of massive sculptures with a mix of Bhuddist, Hindu and Confucian influences, when I was in Nong Khai, but it was getting a little late in the afternoon, so I decided I would drop in on the way out of town in the morning. As it was getting near election time, the peace was regularly shattered by convoys of pick-ups with tanoys blasting out political messages to anyone who cared, or indeed did not care to listen. I could also not fail to hear the local news and general health tips and advice being broadcast from loud speakers on masts along the main street. I decided I would wander away from the centre of the town as you often come across the unexpected in the communities. There were a couple of lakes on the west of town near to the river that looked like they might be worth investigating according to my map. It appeared to be quite a popular spot and was where the locals seemed to go for their aerobics and jogging. I’ve found every town in Thailand has such an area. Also worth seeing in the vicinity was some kind of modern clock tower structure, the Laungputhet Monument. Unfortunately, when I got back to the hotel, the night club was in full swing, but sadly, I wasn’t. It was still going strong at 2.30am – I decided I would opt for budget accommodation tomorrow. Thai-Laos Riverside Hotel, recommended for insomniacs. Mileage: Loei–Nong Khai: 315km Tuesday 4th December 2007: Nong Khai – Nakhon Phanom 7am. The local news public broadcast service woke me up, so I decided to make an early start. First stop would be Sala Kaew Ku, which was conveniently located on my proposed route, about 4km along the 212 heading east. I had seen nothing like this before. It is basically a big garden containing huge statues that appear to have some sort of Indian and Chinese influence, and quite possibly a result of some mind-altering drugs, too. It would make a good setting for The Prisoner. I discovered that it was founded by an exiled Lao mystic (Luang Pa Bunleua Sulilat), whose mummified body can be seen in a glass casket in the main pavilion building. Well worth the 10 baht admission charge. I pressed on along the 212. Again the weather was on top form, but the road was less than memorable; still I made good progress. I suppose I had ideas of the Mekong being an ever present distraction just off to the left, but in reality it was visible less than 5% of the course of the whole route. However, its mere presence did seem to give the area some sort of character, and it was always welcomed when it did reappear unexpectedly. It was also strange that in some places the level seemed so low that mudflats and sandbanks were exposed, making navigation seemingly impossible, whereas elsewhere it was in full flow. The bike itself was performing beyond the call of duty, and I could cruise at 120kmh, and if I lay down on the tank, it would just about manage 140kmh, although it did get close to red line territory at this point. I couldn’t fault it for what it had managed, but it is certainly not designed for this kind of riding. I reached Nakhon Phanom around 2pm and found the river frontage to get my bearings. There were a couple of decent-looking hotels towards the southern end of town on the river, but they both boasted karaoke bars, so I decided to look for something that suggested a quieter night might be had. I found the Si Thep Hotel, a family run place with cheerful staff and decent rooms for 300 baht.Aside from the river frontage, the town didn’t seem to have a great deal on offer, but I found it relaxing and well worth spending a night.I found a good place to eat called Ohio on Phuangnakhon Road – a good mix of Thai and Western food at more than reasonable prices. Without too much else to see or do, I made my way down to the river front where the wind had picked up making the air brisk and headed back to the hotel. I could see the lights of cars and motorbikes on the other side of the river in Laos, which again give the place a bit of an atmosphere. There were a few people eating at tables set out across the pathway but it was by no means overcrowded. Quite a good place for a laid back stop over. Mileage: Nong Khai – Nakhon Phanom: 326km Wednesday 5th December 2007: Nakhon Phanom – Mukdahan A short run down the 212 to Mukdahan. I refuelled on the southern outskirts of Nakhon Phanom and was engaged in a fairly limited conversation with a friendly policeman, who was in the 7-11 at the petrol station. It was quite a refreshing change from the regular contact with the police in Bangkok, which usually involves some form of cash exchange. He was quite interested in my travels, although I cannot honestly say I understood all he had to say. More blue skies, and the road was good, but it was noticeable that the temperature was not quite as cool the further I made my way south. 55km south of Nakhon Phanom is a town called That Phanom and I found the road closed as I got into the centre of the town. Being the King’s birthday, there was a parade in progress involving soldiers, police and nurses in front of a temple. Rather than try to find an alternative route, I parked up and waited for proceedings to come to an end. When they had, a few soldiers (military police I later found out) came up to me and were keen to practice a bit of English. They were friendly and didn’t seem to have the inhibitions of Thais in cities when it comes to interacting with foreigners. In the rush hour, Bangkok’s Skytrain can be heaving with people, but there will often be empty seats either side of any westerner as though he might have some kind of contagious disease. There was a brief glimpse of the Mekong at That Phanom, but the road headed inland a little until the new bridge just north of Mukdahan came into sight. It was a pretty impressive structure, but I didn’t hang around too long, just enough for a couple of pictures. I found a recently opened hotel for 500 baht—Submukda Grand Hotel— I’ve seen grander, but it was easily the best place in town for the money and it was located centrally. Again after having a walk around, I found limited attractions in Mukdahan, which came across as another pleasant, inoffensive town next to the Mekong. The Isaan towns were beginning to appear quite similar and my enthusiasm for exploring them was starting to wane slightly. However, the riding was enjoyable, which was the main point of the trip. Getting back to the hotel that night, I noticed four BMW bikes parked up in a neat line. I hadn’t actually seen any big bikes at any stage of my travels so far, so this raised my curiosity a little as to who they belonged to and where they were heading. Mileage: Nakhon Phanom – Mukdahan: 105km Thursday 6th December 2007: Mukdahan – Ubon Ratchathani As I was loading up the bike that morning, I heard one of the BMWs being warmed up, and it wasn’t long before the owner came over for a chat. He was an affable Thai, who had ridden up from Songkhla with his friends and had arrived here from Nong Khai. They would now be starting their return leg and were heading for Si Saket. His mates appeared soon after, and they seemed fairly shocked when they learned what I had put the 150 through. I was soon on my way, taking the 2034 and 2242 towards a place called Khemmarat. I missed my turn at one point and ended up going along an ever-decreasing road through a small village. However, I was reassured when the locals I asked indicated I was indeed on the right track for my destination—wherever that might be! As luck would have it, a couple of kilometers further on I was back on the 2112 and heading towards Khong Chiam where the Mekong flows off into Laos and later on to Cambodia and finally through Vietnam into the South China Sea. The road was quite patchy with plenty of potholes, but it was a fairly minor route so nothing to complain about given the generally very high standard of roads throughout Thailand. The road to Ubon Ratchathani, the 2222, forks off to the right before Khong Chiam, but I wanted to have one last look at the Mekong, and I needed some petrol. Khong Chiam is a small town that seems to attract a fair number of visitors probably because of the nearby border crossing and to see the point where the rivers Mun and Mekong join and flow separately side-by-side without the waters actually mixing. There were a number of floating restaurants and a few guest houses allowing for an overnight stay if required. I wanted to press on to Ubon, so I bid farewell to the Mekong and took the 2222, which had quite a poor surface, to Phibun Mangsahan and from there continued on into Ubon Ratchathani. I knew where I would stay as I had been there some six weeks previous, when, after having checked-in and paid for a room in a hotel/entertainment complex, I discovered a much, much better quiet place down by the river, named, appropriately enough, The Ratchathani. It had undergone some kind of recent modernization and the rooms (readily discounted from 850 to 680) were tastefully decorated. I would recommend this place to anyone visiting Ubon. After consulting the guidebook, I took a walk to have a look at Wat Nong Bua, a couple of kilometers to the north of the city—worth the effort and quite different from most other Buddhist temples.