“The streets are filled with thousands of small cars, motorcycles, buses and those smudge-pot three-wheeled taxis (tuktuks) all running flat-out. For every 10 miles an hour, you space yourself one-inch from the vehicle in front of you. Those with hair-trigger reflexes survive. Those without ride the bus.”
–Terry Mentzer, Motorcyclist Magazine, November 1977
The world didn’t appear to have changed much in the last 35 years as I darted between trucks, cars and a cavalcade of southeast Asia’s prolific scooter population, making my way through one densely populated small town after another from the Singapore border northbound on Jan. 1.
The chaotic crush of humanity bearing down on me was a vivid reminder of the fact that I was–in a very real way–redefining the round-the-world motorcycle trip my father, Terry, had taken more than three decades ago.
Southeast Asia is the second stage of a circumnavigation that has already taken me through the wilds of Australia and will include future journeys across India, Central Asia and Europe. Unlike Australia, I was up against a dense, often lawless environment with roughly 610 million people fighting for their piece of the pie.
While the world my father explored in 1977 aboard his Honda XR250L is a very different place from the one I am riding across–filled with ever-changing social and political realities that will keep me out of some of the now war-torn portions of my father’s route–there are certain facts of life that remain true, regardless of the era. First, the world is a smaller place than we imagine it to be, and second, that the raw beauty and intensity of a solo motorcycle journey through foreign territory does wonderful things for the soul. Picture Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance meets Walden.
This portion of the journey began with a few days of exploration on foot in Singapore before collecting my bike and heading north through peninsular Malaysia, Thailand and eventually ending in one of the busiest cities on Earth: Bangkok.
People’s lack of physical and social barriers means that close encounters with everyone and everything are pretty much guaranteed all the time. Traffic does not stray far from this standard either. The difference between making a lane change and a gruesome death is often not more than a few inches.
My ride from Singapore to Bangkok proved to be equal parts instinctual and sensory, forcing me to get comfortable with a new spatial reality. Simply walking down the street in this part of the world can be stressful, although it becomes–like everything else–no more than a dance between amenable players in an organized-chaos ballet.
Singapore is a fascinating, engaging place. A city-state with obviously limited land resources–occupying the southernmost tip of peninsular Asia–it relies heavily on its incredibly high standard of living, international business prominence and strict but logical government regulation for its success. After a sleepless night in a cheap hostel in the Lavender District, I met up with Luke Doherty–who had helped me organize a handful of logistical items for this portion of the trip before I ever set foot in the region.
A tall, friendly 30-something Australian expat, avid foodie and talented motorcycle rider with extensive travel and business experience, Doherty showed me the ropes of this one-of-a-kind, filthy-rich micro-country. We hit up one of the more noteworthy hawker markets, a busy assembly of local food vendors and merchants with a wide open central seating arrangement near Little India for some authentic local cuisine. Frog leg porridge, beef renga and chicken wings, topped off with a 32-ounce Tiger Beer and I was off to a good start.
A walk through one of Singapore’s five government-sanctioned red light districts and I felt like I had a pretty good sense of how this place operates. Apparently, the powers that be in Singapore strictly regulate prostitution in an effort to keep it isolated to certain areas and reduce the public health and occupational dangers. The government imports quotas of Chinese, Malay and Thai girls depending on market demand, and places them in relatively safe areas to engage in their trade. There is a tremendous irony to this function in Singapore but on the level, it makes perfect sense in a country that proudly wears its regulation on its sleeve.
Eating durian fruit–southeast Asia’s stanky, pasty post-meal chow of choice–at a small, shoddy roadside stand with traffic buzzing so close, I could taste diesel exhaust with every bite, is like eating the intestines out of fresh roadkill. The fruit’s spiny, rough exterior easily gives way to the hawker’s blade, revealing a soft four-compartment interior filled with pockets of foul smelling mush. It tastes like garlic mixed with creamy peanut butter and has the texture of rotting mayonnaise.
How this became a revered staple of the diet is beyond me.
The incredible heat and humidity of Singapore is blunted by the sheen of the country’s spotless streetscape and thoughtfully realized urban planning efforts. It would take me several days to get acclimated to this type of weather.
Doherty and I rode into Malaysia following a four-hour delay getting my bike released from the port at Jurong in Singapore, where I had it shipped from storage in Darwin, Australia at the end of my first portion of the trip.
My Kawasaki KLR 650 hadn’t seen much more than a dank storage container in the last seven months and required a push start to get the juices flowing. We made it into the beautiful coastal city of Melaka just before sundown and right as the heaviest rains I have ever witnessed came bearing down.
It felt like someone turned a firehose on me. Visibility dwindled to less than 20 feet through a foggy helmet. Roadside rain gutters filled quickly as we entered the city’s core, and anything faster than 30 mph resulted in erratic hydroplaning.
A few hours later, the monsoonal rains subsided and Doherty and I spent the evening sampling local fare and listening to live music on Melaka’s legendary Jonker Walk. The endless fried-food stands, merchants and giant karaoke stage centered amid bars and cheap hostels made for an exemplary people watching experience. Cheap Vietnamese made knock-off Ray Bans and local trinkets seemed to be the items of choice for sale.
Despite the chaos of Jonker, the Malay people were graceful and kind, unlike their friendly but often overbearing Thai counterparts to the north.
The next day, my bike still wouldn’t start without some coaxing, so I took it into Ban Zen motorcycles for a new battery. After about an hour of diagnostic back-and-forth, we concluded that the stator was toast and would need to be respooled. Doherty headed home to Singapore, and I spent another night in Melaka waiting on the repair.
The next morning was a Sunday and the manager of Ban Zen arranged to have “The Tall Man”–a master mechanic with cataracts in his eyes and a kind smile on his face–meet me at the shop to get squared away. He and another man I assumed was his father explained the extent of the repairs in Malay before firing up the bike and sending me on my way. It never ceases to amaze me how effectively one can communicate despite a language barrier using common body language.
A brief stop-over for a photo-op near the Petronas Towers (formerly the world’s tallest buildings) in Kuala Lumpur and I burned pavement to the Cameron Highlands–tea growing country. The tight, twisting drainage of a road took me about an hour off the main highway and put the natural beauty of this part of the world on brilliant display. It became increasingly difficult to keep the bike in my lane while peering across the valley at cascading waterfalls, breathing in awe-inspiring mists and contemplating stopping at countless ticky-tack roadside fruit stands.
After a cool, peaceful stay in the Cameron Highlands and several warnings that Tropical Storm Sonamu was making landfall in quick fashion to my north, I decided to get ahead of the weather. A quick run up Peninsular Expressway E2 and I had made it to the border with Thailand.
Thailand is a strange place with wonderful variety. Whether you are a tourist, expat, local, terrorist or addict, you can find happiness on any scale here.
My initial feelings as I crossed the border was of uncertainty, nervoussness and excitement. Malaysia utilizes standard English script, where Thailand uses something that resembles the aftermath of a wild spaghetti fight. I never stood a chance of reading or understanding anything apart from the occasional English subtext on a handful of highway signs, so I put my full faith in my GPS and continued north into a region of southern Thailand known to be somewhat dangerous.
How my father navigated this region 35 years earlier is beyond me.
I made it into Hat Yai for the night, just a stone’s throw away from Yala Province and a half step ahead of Tropical Storm Sonamu. Yala, about 80 miles to the east, is home to a fundamentalist Islamic faction that has been taking up arms against the Thai government and Westerners in pursuit of an independent Islamic state. Rumor had it that they like to stuff bombs under the seats of motorcycles and detonate them near hotels: Not the most comforting notion, especially given my mode of transport.
Keeping a particularly low profile, I quietly hauled ass out of Hat Yai the next morning and made respectable time into the resort hub of Krabi on the west coast. The last few days of burning miles and not having anyone to talk to had taken their toll, so I decided to spend five days exploring this more laid-back part of southeast Asia as a tourist.
I hiked to the top of Tiger Temple, saddled an elephant for a stroll through the jungle, learned not to trust resident monkeys (they steal anything they can get their grubby little mitts on), spent an afternoon soaking in an emerald pool in the jungle and visited several of south Thailand’s scenic islands in the Andaman Sea–including Maya Beach where the movie The Beach was filmed.
Fully rested, I pushed farther north to meet up with a group from the BMW Motorrad–South Thailand Chapter. In the span of an afternoon, club members Goran, Wittaya and Sarayut led me from the beaches of the west coast across the narrow width of Thailand to Surat Thani–gateway to the legendary party and diving islands of Koh Tao and Koh Samui.
Before parting ways, we traded stories about touring around the world and plans for future motorcycle rallies. I suggested they come to Idaho for a taste of riding some of the best mountain two-track on Earth. They said they’ll think about it.
The next day I was in Bangkok, the stopping point for this leg of Transworld Tour. I met up with some friends who had recently moved to the Sukhumvit area of the city. Like many other major cities in the region, the traffic was an absolute mess and required nerves of steel. It seemed like rush hour ran from 5 a.m. until midnight, and nearly every automobile on the road had a few dings from Bangkok’s endless stop-and-go lifestyle.
I was surprised to see a brand new McLaren F1 supercar in traffic with a 20-something Thai girl behind the wheel. I can’t imagine the $1 million car will make it more than a few weeks without succumbing to the reality of Bangkok’s hustle.
My friends took me out for authentic pad thai, shopping, hookah, wining, dining–all the things Bangkok has become known for. It surprised me to see how much Western influence was taking root here. We visited a brand new micro-brewery in the suburbs of Bangkok that was indistinguishable from any brew pub in the United States. Following a few days of R&R, we ventured to one of Bangkok’s legendary party spots–Khao San Road.
Often identified as the epicenter of mischief in The Hangover 2, this street is exactly as advertised–aggressive street vendors peddling ping pong ball shows and cheap silk suits, fried scorpion kebabs and thousands of tourists getting blitzed.
It had taken just two and a half weeks to cover the 1,500 mile run up the peninsula of southeast Asia, but the people and scenery changed my perspective forever.
I will never forget the mind-numbing sensory reality that exists in the region. In the span of a single breath you can experience the most wonderful aromas from the freshest produce on Earth, a refreshing salty sea breeze and the putrid smell of a rotting trash pile. In this regard, I suspect very little has changed in the last 35 years.
Andrew Mentzer wrote about Part 1 of his trip in the June 27, 2012 edition of Boise Weekly in an article titled “World Ride.“
View a slideshow of images of Mentzer’s trip by clicking here.