Have you ever noticed how we tend to group the personalities of all people from a particular country or place together? We travel somewhere and we say “all of the people are soo lovely”. Or we say; “Don’t go there, it’s full of complete dickheads”. The truth of the matter is, of course, that there are good guys and bad guys in all corners of the world. And in our short journey from Koh Chang to the Cambodian border, we met a shining example of each.
Before we come to that, some more talk of motorcycles;
Our bike, the Kawasaki GTO is rated on the Bikez.com website with a score of 89.2% for reliability. That’s a higher rating than any other bike I’ve ever owned, even the legendarily bullet-proof Honda VFR 800, and with a score such as this, you’d expect to be able to circumnavigate the globe twice without needing to so much as tighten a screw. Almost amusing then is the catalogue of catastrophes we suffered, when attempting to complete a single journey of less than 80km. “Almost”, amusing.
Leaving aside the lost keys and the rear tyre blowout, neither of which can really be blamed on the bike itself; I also had to replace the magneto, the regulator/rectifier and the HT lead, just to coax it into starting up and making it back to the ferry pier.
Once on the mainland, we covered about 15km before grinding to a halt once again. This time, it was immediately apparent that something more serious was wrong, because there was no compression from the engine at all. We’d blown a piston. And not just a little bit, after stripping down we found there was a hole the size of a 10 pence piece in it’s surface. Arse. You can’t fix something like that with a hammer and a can of WD40.
Enter our titular Angel. An off-duty police sergeant with a big black pick-up truck who, upon seeing our situation, volunteered to transport us to the nearest town to get it fixed (MC up front and me sat astride the bike in the open air truck bed – nothing to tie it down with!). After speaking with the mechanics, we were advised that it could not be fixed that day, so, rather than leave us to find accommodation for the night, our hero loaded us back into his truck and drove us another 20km to a different bike shop, where the parts were available.
But he wasn’t finished yet, we were told the bike would take around four hours to be fixed, so while the grease monkeys set to work, we were ushered back into the truck and driven first to get some food, then to his police station for drinks, and finally delivered back across town to a cafe next to the mechanic’s shop. All in all, he’d given up over four hours of his day off (they only get one per week) to ferry a couple of strangers and a motorbike around town, and he didn’t even want money for petrol. What a guy.
So, with our shiny new piston and less than a day to reach the border at Had Lek before our visas expired, we hit the road again. For about 25km. Whereupon, as we descended a hill, our shiny new piston seized, locking up the drive train and back wheel.
I got the clutch in just in time to avoid a horrible accident but by now, even my extensive patience had worn thin, and I elected to do something that no sane or rational person should ever attempt. While freewheeling at 70km/h, I kicked the bike down into third gear, and dropped the clutch.
It crunched loudly enough to start a small earthquake, and almost catapulted us from the bike, but it certainly got the fucking thing freed again.
And Miho ploughed on. Sounding less and less like a motorcycle, and more and more like a diesel transit van, but we continued onward and finally, in a cloud of two-stroke smoke and mechanical hullabaloo, we arrived at the border. And there was much rejoicing.
Then Beelzebub raised his ugly head. In the form of a (at best) 20 year old lady at the Thai customs office. I submitted my paperwork, but her eagle eyes spotted that the registration document in still in the previous owner’s name (as a non-resident, I cannot register it in my own name), I had the all of the ownership papers, the sales receipt, the log book, the insurance documents, and three kinds of driving licence. Not good enough apparently. She almost gleefully announced “You’ll have to leave the bike here and walk in to Cambodia”. Pleading did not work, bribing did not work, and in the end, I went looking for a different customs official.
After a while, I found another person who, despite him noticing the same issue, decided it was not a problem and promptly stamped and signed my export permit, and off I went to wheel the bike through the checkpoint.
But Princess Bitchface had seen this happen and went running to fetch the Chief, who, although he didn’t seem to care either way, eventually gave in to her badgering and agreed that the rules would have to be upheld. My export permit was confiscated and the bike had to be taken back into Thailand. And boy was she smiling. That smug, satisfied, devious smile of the adolescent schoolgirl who’s just got you in trouble with your geography teacher.
Thanks sweetheart. You’ve gained nothing for yourself and you’ve ruined my plans. Well done. I hope your tampon turns into a hedgehog.
There was nothing else for it, the nearest alternative border post was several days ride away, and our visas were up in a matter of hours. So Miho went in to a long-stay car park, and we crossed into Cambodia as pedestrians.
And on the Cambodian side of the threshold, there was more fun to be had. Firstly, we were accosted by youths who insisted we must pay them five US dollars for the visa application form (we told them to erm “go forth” etc). Then we reached the official visa office and were told we would have to pay 1,200 baht each for the tourist visas. We’d checked online and knew that the real visa fee was $20, payable in USD. We had no Thai Baht left, and besides which, 1,200 baht is close to $50, over twice the official price. We refused, and went and stood in line at the tourist police office. I’ve no idea what we planned to do there but it worried the visa official enough for him to come out of his office and ask us to come back. Apparently now we COULD in fact, pay in dollars instead of baht, but the fee was $35 each. Again, we refused and made to leave the office, then the price dropped again to $25.
We probably could have kept this up all day and eventually got the visas for the correct price of $20, but we decided $5 is a small price to pay to get it all sorted out quickly without standing in the sun for hours, and we coughed up. $5 of that $25 went in a separate drawer of his cash register, I noticed.
It turns out however, that this isn’t simply greed on behalf of the staff. We discovered later that the people who are employed at these border posts in Cambodia are not paid well for their jobs, rather the reverse is true. Many actually have to ‘buy’ their jobs from government officials, and pay a monthly or annual fee to keep it. The costs of which (and his own wages) he will recoup by overcharging and accepting bribes. It’s an astonishing system of institutional corruption.
That said, if the Thai officials worked the same way, I could have slipped them $20 and I’d still have my bike. I’d much rather deal with a thief than a ‘jobsworth‘.
You may have noticed that, contrary to my usual pattern, this is my second post in a few days. That’s because the good Miss Marie-Carmen has decreed that it would be better for her blog if I would write shorter posts but more frequently. The second part I can manage, but short posts is something I often have a problem with. I think it was Woodrow Wilson who said that; “If I am to speak for five minutes, I need a week to prepare. If for fifteen minutes, two days. If I am to speak for an hour, I am ready now.”
A snappy quote, and it’s much the same with me and writing. Ask me to describe the last fortnight in 3000 words and I’ll set to it. Ask me to summarise it in a single paragraph, and it’s going to take time.
Anyway, here we are in Cambodia, in a place called Sihanoukville. The plan as it stands is to go and play Robinson Crusoe on some sparsely populated tropical islands, before renting a motorbike to tour the country’s interior. It may be that we cross back in to Thailand in a couple of weeks to pick up Miho, then ride north and try to get her across the border again at a different checkpoint. This could mean a slight delay in the delivery of the promised Stegosaurus but don’t worry, it’s coming.
P.S: Any suggestions for things you’d like me to write about or silly quests you’d like us to undertake also welcome.