Around the world with The Bear – Part Five
The King of Every Kingdom – Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
Pay attention to the road. That’s a basic rule that I forget in this instalment… A bit of bad luck (and bad riding on my part) rather marred our next day. Just out of Kuantan, I glanced down at the map on my tank box. Charlie braked at exactly that moment for a large pothole and I ran into the back of his bike.
Never look at maps on the move…. By the time we’d picked ourselves up, it was obvious we were in a bit of trouble. Charlie looked as though he’d just been subjected to the amorous attentions of a sandpaper python and my arm and shoulder hurt abominably. Charlie had also lost a lot of skin and had a deep cut over his hip.
The locals could not have been more helpful and transported us to hospital. There they sewed Charlie up and put my arm in a sling, dismissing my claims to a broken shoulder blade. Never self-diagnose; it annoys doctors.
It surely did the Peace Corps American surgeon who saw me. I dragged myself off to bed feeling like death warmed over and still sure I had a broken shoulder blade. When you’ve broken as many bones as I have, you know the signs.
Charlie commandeered a truck from the nearest bike shop and went out to get our steeds. Everyone was marvelous, from the chap who drove us to the hospital to the people who looked after the bikes. They were fixed cheaply and well while we convalesced. One night, we went to the local fleapit to see Romulus and Remus with—guess who—Steve Reeves.
The film was looking its age, and seemed to be intercut with snippets of at least half a dozen other movies. Kuantan was a pleasant enough town, but it did become a little boring, and we filled in the time with eating and drinking—mostly steamed dumplings and fish, washed down with the local Guinness or Tiger beer.
The locals take Guinness advertising very seriously and drink the stuff for its alleged health-giving properties, and every night they collected in a small crowd that marveled at the healthy pair of Australians with their table full of empty Guinness bottles.
Then Charlie had his stitches out, and we were off again. Significant parts of his anatomy were still swathed in bandages and I couldn’t lift my left arm. I had to use my right hand to put the left on the handlebar. We must have looked a fine sight rolling up to the first army checkpoint on the road to Raub.
There had been an attack on a police station and the army obviously thought us likely suspects, because they searched the bikes from stem to stern. But we were carrying neither explosives nor Communist Party membership cards so we were allowed to proceed.
Once out of range of all the hardware being waved around, I started breathing again. I hate guns, and I make a special effort for Armalites pointed by what looked like 10 year olds. Oh. All right, 12 year olds.
In Raub, we were invited to park our bikes in the kitchen of the hotel. Then we went out and had a magnificent Chinese dinner, peering out of the windows at the army and what I took to be militia, who were riding around on Yamaha 70s with fierce-looking shotguns slung over their shoulders.
Charlie went out to the hospital in the morning to have his wounds dressed, and on the way out of town we were nearly run over by an armoured car.
There was an even more obliging parking space for the bikes the next night, in Kampar: the hotel clerk’s living-room. He had his own bike in there as well. Another visit to the movies rewarded us with The Buccaneer, a 1958 epic featuring Yul Brynner with hair.
When we got back, the disco downstairs was going full blast. They were boogying to Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer and Auld Land Syne. Funny town, Kampar.
The road to Penang was a main highway, with ferocious traffic that ignored our poor little XLs completely. I kept expecting to have to choose between ramming an oncoming and overtaking bus in the grille or ploughing into a gaggle of schoolkids on pushbikes. Tough luck, kiddies…
Once off the ferry in Penang we checked into the New China Hotel, of which I had pleasant memories. I’d stayed there seven years before, on my way back to Australia from Europe by bicycle and public transport. I even got my old room back. Then it was back to the hospital and another X-ray. I wasn’t going to put up with the agony for much longer.
‘No wonder you are in pain,’ the radiologist said in that wonderful Peter Sellers accent. ‘You have a crack as wide as my thumb in your left shoulder blade…’ So I was strapped up and grounded for a week, and Charlie chauffeured me about on the back of his bike.
We filled in the time pleasantly with Magnolia ice-cream, coconut drinks and lashings of satay with peanut sauce. As well as getting our Thai visas, Charlie had a new rear wheel spacer made up for his bike. The old one had worn away to a slim circlet of metal. We would have more trouble with that later… should have got more spare ones.
There were some other bikers staying at the hotel, including a German bloke on a Honda 500/4 and a Dutch chap called Frank, who had ridden a Harley WLA with a sidecar to Nepal and stored it there while he and his lady looked at Malaysia. I amused myself scribbling puerile philosophy in my diary. It’s amazing what your mind will turn to when you’re not feeling on top of things.
What is it they say about all good things having to end? I loaded myself up with painkillers, gratis from the hospital, and we took to the road again. I must say, despite the slight misdiagnosis at Kuantan, that the Malaysian hospital system is absolutely first class—and free, except for a nominal registration charge. Just as well, really. Neither of us had travel insurance.
On our way up to the border we passed Butterworth Air Force Base with only a slight pang of homesickness at the Australian flag flying over the gate. It’s an Australian base, the only overseas one our forces have, and I guess it’s designed to protect the Malaysians from … err…. yeah, well, maybe Dr Mahathir.
The road to the border was enjoyable, with a good surface and long curves through hills covered with rubber plantations and carefully concealed gun emplacements. It looked exactly the way it had all those years before when I came through in the opposite direction on my bicycle.
There was comedy at the border. The Customs man wanted our Carnets. We told him about the bloke at the Singapore border and he started tearing his hair out. Of course we needed them! What did those clowns think they were doing?
We left him still distraught before he could think of impounding our bikes, which he could have done, and headed for the Thai border several miles farther along the road.
There was more comedy at Sadao as we filled out handfulls of forms that made the Singapore Paper Tiger seem like a tabby. This is the Paper Dragon. One form had eight carbons, all but the first two totally illegible. Each copy required a duty stamp, with the total charge being somewhere around 12 cents.
Then several officials had to see, stamp and sign the forms. Most of these gentlemen were out to lunch, so we joined them. A tip for you—the coffee shop across the road from the Sadao border post gives an excellent exchange rate. Tell ‘em The Bear sent you and go “ooga, booga”. They’ll know.
We managed to get away in the end and ride the few miles to Songkhla, the first large town in Thailand. After finding a cheap Chinese hotel we rode out to the beach for drinks and dinner, which was not the smartest thing either of us have ever done.
We sat in deckchairs out on the sand and had drinks. Many drinks, I think. We were drinking Mekong, the well-known Thai whisky, which allegedly gets its name from the river because it looks and tastes like it.
It does have a little more alcohol than the river water; at least I think so because the scenery moved in a rhythmic kind of way. We may also have eaten something. Later, very much later, we tore ourselves away from the pretty little ladies who had been serving us—if truth be known, they closed up and left us—and rode back to our hotel.
Very slowly, very carefully, very crookedly and cursing the inadequate lighting on the XLs. Don’t ever drink a lot of Mekong; it’s not particularly strong, but the hangovers are awful.
The banks were closed the next day—it may have been Sunday—but we did manage to change some money at a large hotel and get out of town. Had Yai, which is the railhead for Songkhla, was dusty and confusing and we were glad to get back to the highway, but not for long. We were now open to attack from the huge Isuzu trucks that infest Thai roads, and spent quite a bit of time on the dirt escaping from them.
Never mind the Thai roads: there are other things that are much more enjoyable. Read about them next installment…