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Old mountain goat, new tracks
[top : Writer Tim McIntyre on his trusty ride. On his Thai road trip, he stays in guesthouses (below, left) and tackles winding mountain roads with glee.]
It is nice to wake up to the smell of burning brake pads.
In a place such as Doi Angkhang, the scent seems to linger. This 1,400m peak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, may be a baby, but hidden beneath the tree line is one vertigo-inducing ride.
The road up is so steep that four- wheel-drives which are not burning rubber are rolling backwards. Cars coming down the other way are smoking their brakes. Pick-ups and mini buses lucky enough to have made it to the halfway point must wait for the chilly mountain air to cool their red-hot brake discs.
There is, thankfully, no burning sensation and no smoking theatrics coming from my wheels. My 10-year-old Kawasaki W650 (Dubya, for short) is going about its business with unshakable finesse.
Brake, turn, twist the throttle and zoom past 3.5-litre turbo diesel engines like they are standing still. Repeat at the next corner. Mountain? What mountain?
The Dubya is making light work of a mountain road that, in some parts, feels more like a wall than tarmac.
Yet it is no superbike, no Masterbike- winning Triumph Daytona (although it can be mistaken for a 1969 Triumph Bonneville).
The Dubya's air-cooled 650cc parallel-twin engine makes a positively ancient 45hp. At 180kg, this 650cc bike weighs more than some 1,200cc bikes. Concessions to modernity include electrics that work and a crankcase that does not leak.
The first order of business, after arriving in Chiang Mai on the back of a 2,500km ordeal through Malaysia and central Thailand, is to seek an audience with the oracle of the Triangle: David Unkovich.
He has spent the better part of 20 years riding, writing and mapping out the best roads in the notorious Golden Triangle framed by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Over a long breakfast, we chat about old bikes and new guesthouses, easy roads and difficult women.
I tell him about my plan to ride up Thailand's highest mountain, the 2,565m Doi Inthanon, then take the back road to Mae Hong Son, hang out in up-and- coming Pai, before setting off for Thoed Thai, the former stronghold of Shan warlord Khun Sa, right on the Myanmar border.
He nods as he listens. Then he sees the Dubya and laughs: "It is going to be fun on that thing."
Bright and late the next morning, our party of four set off in search of great roads, good food and cheap hotels. According to one reliable number-cruncher, some 2,500 corners are lined up our way.
As the vegetation changes and the roads narrow, the corners become more frequent and one thing is evident: The bike that is like a fish out of water on the highway, an ugly vibrating duckling, has blossomed nicely into a handsome mountain goat.
Over the next five days, I would ride as fast as the chassis, engine and the terrain allow and the Dubya never puts a foot wrong - as if it is born for going fast on narrow, blind mountain turns that bank skyward then hellward.
But here is the truth: Just about any other modern bike would have done this 40-year-old ride, at a far quicker pace and in considerably greater comfort.
This is an industry where quantum leaps in technology, particularly chassis design, happen every 10 years. Today's bikes are so reliable, so quick and so comfortable, they make light work of vast distances. Getting on a bike and riding 1,000km a day has become, well, easy.
But when things start being easy, they stop being fun. No chance with that happening on the Dubya.
For most of the way, our troupe of easy riders is blessed with smooth roads, light traffic and postcard views. On hindsight, getting there is all the fun. Most of the places on our list turn out to be the kind you are better off reading about than actually visiting.
Customary photo opportunity aside, cloudy Doi Inthanon is just another wet and misty mountain top.
Mae Hong Son is still quaint and not overly touristy but finding any one feature here worth riding 250km for is tough.
Neighbouring Pai is a disaster, local and foreign tourists mill about the main street, each looking to the other for clues as to what all the fuss is about.
With its annual tea fair in full swing, the crowds come out in force at Chinese- speaking Doi Maesalong, about 250km north-east of Pai.
Given the harsh economic realities, Thais are shunning overseas plane rides in favour of overland road trips. Seems like they have come by the millions.
My partner Dionne whips out a map of northern Thailand picked up earlier from a 7-Eleven store. Pointing to a spot on the border with Laos, some 400km away, she says: "We could go there?"
Five days in the saddle, living out of what we both can fit into one backpack, I am just about ready for civilisation. Yet this woman wants to go on riding.
The bike? It seems to be running better than ever.