An American Abroad

Enduro Madness

“Take your pants off,” said the pretty Thai woman standing in front of me. “Shirt and socks too.”

I don’t have much body modesty, but even so I hesitated for a few seconds before complying. When in Pattaya, do as the Pattayans do, right? So off came the Levis, the T-shirt, the socks, all the way down to my skivvies.

The woman dropped to a squat right in front of me, eye level with my JCPenney briefs. I was only a little miffed that she didn’t have the courtesy to check out my junk. Instead, with the practiced efficiency of a nurse, she strapped knee-and-shin protectors onto my legs. Riding pants were next, followed by a jersey, a back brace, and a complicated mesh jacket with armor at the spine, shoulders, elbows and forearms. She indicated to me to pull on thick wool socks and then fitted my feet into heavy boots with steel soles and toes and more armor around the ankles. She handed me gloves, googles, and a helmet and indicated that I was all set.

Wait, I thought. There’s a vital piece of anatomy unprotected here.

“Um,” I stammered, “a cup?”

The woman looked puzzled.

“You know. A cup,” I repeated stupidly, as if doing so might somehow bring forth a miracle of comprehension.

She stared at me blankly.

Obviously, English wasn’t going to get the message across, so I resorted to charades, reaching down and curving my hand protectively around my privates.

“Cup?” I repeated, hopefully.

The woman shook her head. “No need,” she said.

No need. OK. Did this mean that there is no possible chance of getting genitally maimed doing enduro? Or did it mean that, in her estimation, there was nothing there worth protecting?

As it turned out, like so many millions of guys before me, I was unduly worried about the wrong head.


The woman repeated the dressing ritual with my fellow rider, a young Israeli named Yoab, who had recently completed his IDF service and was now vagabonding his way around Thailand. We were then led to our machines by our “instructor,” a thickset tattooed Thai guy who spoke no English.

I climbed onto a Kawasaki 250 with knobby tires and fired up the engine. It felt good to be astride a bike again after six months of pedestrian life. I had signed up for three hours of enduro riding with an outfitter appropriately named Enduro Madness. I was here:

With our “instructor” in the lead, we pulled out and rode down the streets of the outskirts of Pattaya. Our “instructor” demonstrated his prowess at popping a wheelie and maintaining it for a quarter mile down the road. Impressive, yes, but neither instructive nor reassuring.

Then, without so much as a warning, we veered off the road and onto a dirt path through some scrub flats near the seashore. This was my first-ever experience at riding off-road. We curved through the trail, which changed from hard dirt to light sand to deep sand. I was riding second, behind the “instructor.” I held onto the vain hope that we were going out to a meeting spot where our real training and practice would begin.

And after about 45 minutes of riding, we did pull into a clearing and stopped under a tree. I had been pretty tense, doing this kind of riding with absolutely no instruction, but now I relaxed. I had made it clear, in words and writing, that I had no experience whatsoever with off-road riding. Yoab was just as inexperienced as I. Now, I thought, we would finally be taught some of the dos and don’ts.

But this did not occur. After about five minutes, the “instructor” went to mount up again.

“Wait,” I called out. “It would be nice if we could get some instruction here. I mean, this is my first time doing this.”

Yoab seconded my motion, which I then reinforced with gestures that I hoped showed my puzzlement at how to ride.

The “instructor” came over to me and indicated that I should sit forward more, keep my knees hugging the gas tank, and keep my elbows out slightly. That was it. Nothing about gearing, breaking, turning, balancing, or anything else. Oh, but as we took off again, the “instructor” did pop another wheelie, just to make sure we knew how cool he was.

For the first two hours, I was very tense, but did OK. We tackled some gulches and hillocks. I knew enough to understand that speed was my friend on these obstacles, and the torquey little Kawa responded well. Jumping over those obstacles felt a lot like horseback jumping, something I haven’t done in decades but apparently still have muscle memory of. It seemed impossible that I would get through some of the gulches, but I goosed the throttle and flew. What a kick.

Far less of a kick, though, was turning. I’d never done much turning on dirt or loose gravel before and had always gone out of my way to avoid it. Each time I felt the Kawa break traction, my body would involuntarily tense up all over, prompting me to tell myself out loud to relax. Deep sand was the worst. Knowing nothing about how much to rev the engine, what gear to be in, or anything else for that matter, I stalled out a few times and had to rock the bike back and forward to get moving again.

We rode along a beach, where the knobby tires did a good job on the wet sand, and then curved around to slightly higher ground where there was a settlement of sorts. There I saw a black village and the cruelest poverty imaginable. There were large rectangular pits dug into the sand, where the people who lived in the settlement were burning wood, presumably to make charcoal. Everything about the settlement was flat black from the smoke, from the houses made of sticks and plastic bags to the people themselves and their children and dogs. The air was thick with woodsmoke, making visibility almost impossible. I felt dirty, more figuratively than literally, joyfully zooming through such a place on a recreational lark.

I was soon to receive my karmic payback.

We climbed away from the shore into the woods. Sometimes the trail was so narrow I feared that the Kawa’s handlebars wouldn’t fit through the gap. I was relieved when the trail widened again.

And then it happened.

I still don’t know why, of all places, I wiped out at that particular spot. There was nothing especially technically difficult about the terrain; it was dirt jungle floor. It was on an incline, a very modest one. There was a slight curve to the trail, which I may have misread. Or maybe after two hours of anxious riding I was fatigued. Or maybe this was just my payback from the black village.

To one side of the trail was a steep slope that led to a ravine maybe fifteen feet below. My front tire somehow slipped over the edge and the Kawa dropped sharply beneath me and came to an abrupt stop as it was grabbed by the jungle undergrowth of vines, saplings and tall grass. I flipped and flew over the handlebars with my feet in the air and dropped down, landing face-first with the full weight of my body behind me. My neck snapped back hard. Well, I thought, THAT’S not good.

Everything stopped.

Yoab stopped his bike on the trail where I’d flown over the edge and was making his way down to me. “Don’t move!” he yelled. I knew that was good advice, but I still experimentally wiggled my fingers and toes. Everything wiggled properly. My neck hurt, but I didn’t sense any grave injuries there. Had I not been wearing a full-face helmet, I would have been a lot worse off. After about two minutes of assessing myself and noting with satisfaction that various parts of me were starting to hurt, I sat up. Nothing drastic happened.

The “instructor” by this time had reversed course and found us. He said nothing to me, but set to work at excavating the bike. With Yoab’s help, they pulled it out of the embankment. The “instructor” set to work unbending the various parts of the bike that were bent. I felt shaky and achy, but was probably on an adrenaline high. I indicated that I wanted to ride on.

I fell two more times in the next ten minutes. I could blame that on the deep sand, but I think more to the point was the fact that I had lost my confidence. No more flying over gulches for me today.

We turned around, slowed the pace, and headed back to the riding facility.

From Ohio to Vietnam, I’ve had some excellent motorcycle instruction in the past. I have gone on tours with outfitters who stressed safety and technique. I guess I’ve been lulled into the assumption that all motorcycle tour companies adhere to those principles. I’m not sure I learned much about enduro in Thailand, other than it is in equal measures terrifying and fun. But I did learn the importance of asking a lot of questions before putting my life in the hands of any old motorcycle outfitter.

Rimbaud Speaks of Bangkok

I’ve been struggling to understand why I didn’t take photos in Bangkok, why I can’t even seem to write much about it. Something about the too-muchness of that city shuts me down. Then in one of those weird coincidences of literature, I found an answer.

I’ve been reading Rimbaud’s Illuminations on and off for awhile now. Today I came upon this:


Seen enough. The vision was encountered in every kind of place.

Had enough. City uproar, in the evening, in the sunlight, and forever.

Known enough. The interruptions of life. —Oh uproar and visions!

Departure in the midst of new involvements, new sounds!

Rimbaud knew a thing or two about excess. Here, even he seems incapable of describing what he saw, heard, felt, tasted, smelled. There are no concrete nouns, no metaphors or similes. If even he could be shut down by the sensory overload of city life, then maybe I can forgive myself for not being able to commit Bangkok to words and pictures.

I was feeling wiped out after my trip to the Similan Islands yesterday. Spent most of the day in my hotel, just trying to get my digestion and temperature regulation and energy levels back to normal. A friend suggested that I had “overwhelmed my immune system.” Perhaps. But that phrase stuck with me as I considered Bangkok. After all the travel I’ve done in the last 20 months, I do feel pretty much immune to the ways that new places can assault my senses. But Bangkok seems to be an exception. I’m not immune to it yet. It infects me and stops me up.

Someday I’ll go back and figure out how and why.

By Speedboat to the Similan Islands

Once I got to Phuket, I couldn’t wait to get out of Patong and see some of the islands that the area is so famous for. Early in the morning, a van picked me up and drove me to a wharf, where I boarded a speedboat powered by three Yamaha 250 outboards. There were thirty passengers aboard, all Russians except me.


Our destination was the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea, an archipelago consisting of one volcanic and eight coral islands. The islands were once settled by Malay Gypsies, but today are uninhabited and are a national park. The sea was calm, the weather clear, and after about 75 minutes of bumping over the waters at speed, we put in by one of the smaller islands and went snorkeling. I was here:

I saw hundreds of fish in the clear blue/green waters. Here my ignorance of marine biology embarrasses me; I can’t name anything I saw. The most beautiful and numerous were about 10 inches long with silvery bodies marked by black, blue and yellow vertical stripes. Saw a few larger fish too, though nothing bigger than about 16 inches.

After snorkeling, we went to Ko Similan, the main island in the group, which is famous for a large rock formation at its peak.



I climbed up and from this vantage had a great view of the beach.








There was a pavilion in a grove of trees where we had lunch and escaped the heat of midday. Nearby were signs that as beautiful as this spot is, it can also be very dangerous.


Memories of the the 2004 tsunami that killed 230,000 people are still fresh here.

We hit another coral island and did some more snorkeling before heading back to Phuket. The sea was slightly rougher by then, and sometimes our boat launched itself over the crest of a wave and came crashing down to the sea surface with a spine-jolting whomp. It was a delightful day, though I overdosed on sun and snorkeling added a few more scrapes and bruises to those I’ve collected so far on this trip.


From the craziness of Bangkok, I took a quick discount flight to Phuket, an island off the Malay Peninsula in the Andaman Sea. I made the town of Patong my home base and checked into the Casa Jip Guesthouse, a laid-back place run by an Italian named Nicola who used to live in LA where he was a chef for movie stars. There are pictures of Kim Basinger, Pamela Anderson, Al Pacino, David Hasselhoff, and others autographed to him adorning the walls.

I was here:

I got in too early that my room wasn’t ready yet, so I stowed my bag with Nicola and went directly to the beach.






Further down the beach road, there was a medical clinic that specialized in the sorts of services visitors to Phuket are likely to want.


Heading back toward the guesthouse, I wound up on Bangla Road, Phuket’s boulevard of decadence. It was sleepy at that hour of the morning, but some people start their drinking early.


I also saw a couple of bar girls rehearsing their circular trapeze act; doubtless come nightfall they will be differently attired.




I stopped off at a restaurant for breakfast and got talking to an Indian from Srinigar named Robert. He hooked me up with a speedboat tour of the Similar Islands, which I took the following day. By the time I got back to the Casa Jip, my room was waiting for me.


Floating in Bangkok

From the laid-back hospitality of Sri Lanka, I hop across the Bay of Bengal to Bangkok, a city that seems designed to overwhelm all five senses. It’s loud, dirty, corrupt, sensual, ugly, beautiful, frenetic, crazy, and delightful. After less than a day of that, I decide to go to the opposite extreme and, for the first time, try a sensory deprivation experience at the Bangkok Float Center.

The float center is maybe 30 km from the central part of Bangkok where I’m staying. The taxi driver who took me there was crestfallen; while he’ll make a good fare going out there, he’ll never find someone on the city outskirts looking for a lift back into town. He offers to wait. I decline. He waits anyway. I tip him well.

I walk into a building with a suburban office feel, doff my shoes and socks, and sign a waiver agreeing to pay megabaht if I contaminate the float pod with “urine, vomit, blood, or fecal matter.” The place is run by a thoroughly Americanized Thai guy named, appropriately, Donovan. He’d lived for years in Texas and gotten into the whole sensory deprivation/flotation racket there, and then moved back to Thailand to set up shop.

D leads me up three flights into a room whose only features are a large egg-shaped pod, a rectangular pumping unit, and a little shelf for clothes. He explains the drill to me, which is essentially to relax and let go. Though I’d taken a shower just before leaving the hotel, D insists that I take another. He leaves me on my own then. There’s a bathroom adjacent to the pod room and I dutifully strip down and rinse off.

The water in the pod is glowing with a nice blue light. I screw in some earplugs and climb inside. The water is skin temperature and contains about 1200 pounds of dissolved epsom salts. I am so buoyant it takes some getting used to, but eventually I position myself so I’m floating on my back. I reach up and grab the handle and pull the top half of the egg closed, press a button to kill the lights, and think to myself this is going to be the most boring ninety minutes of my life.

Music starts. Asian flutes. At first, I hold my neck stiff, not trusting the buoyancy of my own head. This makes my neck and shoulders ache. I remember what Donovan said about this and force my muscles to relax. My head leans back further into the water, but I do not sink. At first, there’s a distracting sting from a site on my left upper arm where some sort of nasty insect bit me back in Tunisia and left a little wound. But that fades with the music after about ten minutes. Now I am in quiet darkness. My body feels weightless, though I still can’t get my head just right. It makes no difference whether my eyes are open or shut. I can’t hear anything except my own breathing. I’m not touching anything solid. I’m not completely sure of the points where a horizon of water must gird my body.

D told me that for the first half hour, my mind would be active. Veteran floaters and meditationists take less time to turn off the mind. I start to notice occasional blank spots the progress of thoughts that runs through my brain, as if a film was being shown and some of the frames had been blacked out. I am conscious, I think. I keep going back to a dream/fantasy of me walking into a richly appointed saloon and being welcomed. Over and over.

I was thinking that I’d been floating for maybe 25 minutes when the music comes on again to signal the end of 90 minutes. Had I slept? It’s hard to know. I think it was more like being in that twilight space between wakefulness and sleep. It makes me wonder what sleep is. Clearly I had lost my ability to judge time.

I hit the light switch, push open the eggshell door, force my all-too-buoyant legs down so my feet are on the pod floor, and climb out. I head directly to the shower. There are white salt streaks where I had splashed myself with the water from the bod.

I dress and go downstairs and am debriefed by Donovan, who seems pleased with my report.

One way to look at this is to say that I just paid a guy $60 US to take a ninety minute nap. Maybe that’s all it is. On the other hand, that state of being between consciousness and sleep is an interesting place to be.

Bangkok 10

I walk out of the Ever Rich Inn (which has turned out to be a great place to stay, by the way) for the last time at 5:45 on the morning after Christmas and am amazed that the party is still going on. Sukumvit Road at that hour is just like I first found it, with the floating sidewalk cafes still doing a brisk business. I guess they keep going til the morning pushcart vendors come to claim the turf as their own. As for me, I hail a cab. Three hours later, I’m flying back to China.

I loved Bangkok, but not for the reasons I expected. I came with a list of places I wanted to see and things I wanted to do and I didn’t see or do half of them. I spent most of my three days there just walking up and down Sukumvit Road and the sois (side-streets) that intersect it, hopping into shops, bars and restaurants at a whim, and just relaxing.
I didn’t see anything particularly beautiful and I didn’t take many pictures; I just basked in the strangeness of it all.
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I felt more culture shock than I ever have before, and that’s probably because I came to Thailand after six months in China. There’s an old joke about the differences between various countries. To adapt and paraphrase, in China everything is forbidden, including that which is expressly permitted. In Thailand, however, everything is permitted, including that which is expressly prohibited. I understand this in terms of respiration. In China, it feels like the people are holding their breath; it’s a tightly governed conservative society. In Thailand, though, people seem to breathe easily.

(Back to Bangkok 9)

Bangkok 9

On Christmas eve, I catch a tuk-tuk to Khaosan Road. Anyone who’s seen or read The Beach knows that street as the place where Richard is first given the mysterious map to the island. It’s backpacker central. In Bangkok Eight, Burdett questions whether it is really part of Thailand at all. I arrive at 8:30 at night and the street seems crowded, but by 10:00 it’s almost impossible to move.

There are bars and inexpensive restaurants, street musicians, travel agents hawking packages to Phuket, stalls offering the latest in tie-dye clothing, Bob Marley paraphernalia, bookstores (in one, I bought what turned out to be a bootleg copy of a Lonely Planet guide to Bangladesh), cheap guesthouses and hostels. There are storefronts advertising in Hebrew, catering to the young Israelis who’ve just been discharged from the IDF and are now on their almost mandatory round-the-world treks. There are young people everywhere. I’ve been on many streets like this, though not for quite a while. To tell the truth, it’s good to be back. It’s easy to sneer at hippie travelers, but even after all this time it still feels like these are my people.

(Ahead to Bangkok 10)

(Back to Bangkok 8)

Bangkok 8

Two blocks from my hotel a group of ladyboy hookers congregate on the sidewalk. They’re identifiable by their impossibly pneumatic chests and too-thick wrists. I don’t get the attraction to them, much less the desire to become one. But as I try to imagine their lives, I conclude that they are the bravest people I’ve ever seen.

(Ahead to Bangkok 9)

(Back to Bangkok 7)

Bangkok 7

Back near my hotel and in need of a rest, I flop into a British pub. I try to settle into my Burdett (which is better than any guidebook) at a bar facing the street, but am interrupted twice by seatmates who want to chat.
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The first is Vincent, a Londoner who lives in Bangkok and teaches kindergarten. He is sullen, rude, and very drunk, almost past coherent speech. After a few exchanges I return to my book. A young Thai woman is on the other side of him, flattering him with words and touches. I glance up from the pages in time to see one of her arms amorously encircling his neck while the other reaches carefully into his back pocket. She deftly extracts a few bills from his wallet. He’s too far gone to notice. She looks over his shoulder and sees me watching her. I smile conspiratorially. They leave shortly thereafter.

Second up is Paul, an older Welshman who has settled in Singapore with his Thai wife and is back to visit. He stands me a beer after I sing the Swansea football song, which he is surprised I know. He’s actually interesting to talk to: an expat who has no intention of ever returning to the west. He proudly shows me pictures of his four year old son. Then his mobile rings. It’s his wife. I can’t understand what he says, but I can see it’s not good. He hangs up, shaken. “Everything all right at home?” I ask gently. “No,” he says. “My wife found a bottle of Viagra in my kit bag and wants to know what it’s doing there.” “Uh-oh,” I say. “And it’s stupid, because it wasn’t even mine—I was holding it for a friend,” says Paul. “Even I don’t believe that,” I say. He pays his bill and flees.

(Ahead to Bangkok 8)

(Back to Bangkok 6)

Bangkok 6

Further down Sukumvit is the Rachada strip, a district of enormous luxury hotels and gigantic high-end malls. Nothing there is of human scale and everything there is way out of my price range. I’m reading John Burdett’s novel Bangkok Eight right now. A few hours earlier, I came to the part where his Thai detective hero, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, is abducted and forced to sully his Buddhist purity in the company of three prostitutes. The scene takes place in Rachada; now I understand why. Anyway, in contrast to the area around my much more modest hotel, there are few tourists out on the street, even though some of the hotels here must have in excess of 1,000 rooms. Maybe they are in the malls, in private cars, or in enclosed restaurants.
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I also pass by Bangkok police headquarters, and it is here that I see evidence of the recent political disturbances. In addition to the permanent wrought iron fence around the police compound, there are now rolls of razor wire just inside the fence and policemen decked out in riot gear every twenty meters. There are also empty trucks designed for carrying people parked all over the compound, though whether these are for transporting police or detainees is unclear to me.
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(Ahead to Bangkok 7)

(Back to Bangkok 5)