Rolling into remote Asian villages aboard the Triumph Tiger 955i, I tended to get noticed. Shoulders back and head held high, the Tiger growled and the people smiled and waved. I’d pull to a dusty halt, kill the engine and become the instant focus of attention. A hundred familiar questions would greet my arrival: ‘How fast?’ ‘How big?’ ‘How far?’ ‘How much?’ Cameras would click as adults posed for photographs beside the orange beast while every kid in town looked longingly towards the Tiger’s empty pillion seat.Along with the genuine warmth and hospitality I’d actually enjoyed the attention, but as the miles had increased I’d realised that something important had been missing. The people passing fleetingly through my life had probably learned a great deal about my nomadic existence aboard the impressive Triumph Tiger, but their understanding of ‘Me’ had done little to improve my understanding of ‘Them’.
Four years earlier in London, my journey had started as little more than a self-indulgent jolly, a magical remedy for mid-life mediocrity, a low-rent Long Way Round that owed far more to POORATECH than TOURATECH. However, somewhere along those dusty roads heading east, the nature of the journey had changed. I don’t remember a particular milestone on the road nor a precise moment in time, but what had started life as a ‘Motorcycle Journey’ had somehow transformed into a ‘Journey by Motorcycle’.
I was beginning to understand that what I was witnessing along the way wasn’t a true reflection of life, but a performance of life staged purely for the benefit of the foreigner with the big shiny motorcycle. In every home that I’d been invited to enter, of which there were many, there’d always been a metaphorical elephant that I’d wanted to learn much more about; poverty, politics, inequality etc. But, in every home and village those elephants had been hiding in the shadow of the ever dominant Tiger. My European motorcycle had certainly opened the gates to remote communities in the middle of everywhere, but it had done so with the subtlety of a battering ram. In order to break down the barriers between myself and the communities that lay ahead of me, I needed to replace that battering ram with a much more sensitive key. In order to understand more about the real lives of those I was yet to meet, I realised that I needed to slow down the pace, become more anonymous and to start passing through the lives of others rather than simply allowing others to pass fleetingly through mine.
The Triumph Tiger 955i was an amazing motorcycle, but it was just a little too rude and conspicuous for my changing needs. There was no alternative, it had to go, but parting certainly wouldn’t come easily. Back in 2008, I’d explained my initial travel plans to the good people at Triumph Motorcycles and they’d offered me some quite unusual advice: ‘The Triumph Tiger won’t make it around the world. It’s just a street bike dressed up in an adventure frock, so we’d advise you to buy a BMW’. Fifty thousand miles, thirty-five countries and several continents later, having witnessed modern BMW’s and KTM’s expensively self-destructing across the wilds of Siberia, my only real mechanical failure had been a blown headlight bulb in Vladivostok. That’s not too shabby for a simple street bike wearing an adventure frock, but the time had come to start shopping for a more appropriate ride. What I needed was a simple and reasonably priced motorcycle, something that would blend into the vast Asian landscape and hopefully go unnoticed.
Exactly four years after setting out from London on the Triumph, I’m now riding through the chaotic streets of Bangkok aboard a brand new red and white motorcycle. I’m five hundred pounds poorer, but I’m riding the most amazing motorcycle the world has ever seen. It’s certainly the most highly produced vehicle in history, and therefore I hope, the most anonymous. It’s the motorcycle that quite literally changed the world, the motorcycle upon which you’ll meet the nicest people, the iconic Honda SuperCub C90. However, I’ve just bought this little SuperCub in Bangkok, an absolutely amazing city, but a city where things are seldom what they appear to be. Despite the fact that I bought the motorcycle from one of Bangkok’s premier Honda dealerships, it’s not actually a SuperCub, in fact, it’s not even a Honda. I’ve just purchased a Tiger Retro 110, a Thai manufactured copy of the 1960’s SuperCub C90, or as the Tiger Motorcycle Company of Thailand prefer to call it, ‘a faithful reproduction’. However you’d like to describe it, and I’m sure that Honda purists have some colourful descriptions of their own, it’s time to see if this motorcycle is the sensitive key that I’d hoped for.
It’s the second week of April and the beginning of Thailand’s Song Kran Festival, the festival that marks the end of the dry season and the coming of the monsoon rains. Traditionally this was the time when rice farming villagers in the North would take the remainder of their precious water to the temples and use it to cleanse the images of Buddha. In return for their offerings, they’d hope to receive good rains and good fortune for the coming year. Traditions such as these are often the earliest victims of progress, and in recent years Thailand’s economic and structural progress has been remarkable, but when it comes to fitting square pegs into round holes, the Thai’s have an uncanny knack of making such unions seem quite natural. It was time for me to start finding out if Thailand’s progress had been kind to its culture.
A few kilometres into my first journey on the smile inducing Tiger Retro 110, I turn away from the main highway and steer gingerly into the temple at Lak Si. Thai’s are very fortunate people. As Buddhist’s they can look forward to the possibility of enjoying many consecutive lives, but as an atheist I’m well aware of my own mortality and I'd like to see my one and only life continue for as long as possible. ‘A faithful reproduction’ is probably a fair and accurate description of the Retro 110, because the Tiger Motor Company seems to have successfully captured the essential essence of the original SuperCub C90, especially it would seem, its ugliest warts. With 1960’s leading link front forks, rear suspension that prefers shocking to absorbing and a front brake that’s bordering on useless, I temporarily discard my atheist leanings and seek a helpful blessing from the monks. If I’d arrived here on the big Triumph there’d be great ceremony now; tables laden with food and drink, beating drums and ringing bells and strings of fragrant orchids with the Abbot Monk centre stage in his finest saffron robes. Today, the three novice monks finish contemplating the sports pages of their newspaper, take the final draws from their cigarettes and only then, rise to assist me. ‘Na-mo ta-sa, pa-ka ra- toe, ah-rah ha-toe, sam-ma, sam-pud ta-sah’. Three times they repeat the traditional Buddhist blessing before sprinkling the Retro 110 with water and tying a simple white string loosely around its throttle. The little scooter has passed its first test. It’s been blessed as any normal Thai scooter would be blessed. Our future happiness and safety is assured and the road heading north now looks a little less daunting.
An hour after leaving Bangkok, I reach Ayutthaya, the ancient moated capital of Siam with its magnificent temples and countless images of Buddha. The recent flood waters have subsided and restoration work is well underway. High on ancient bamboo scaffolds, Thai workers toil beneath the burning sun, executing ancient skills with the most modern of cordless power tools. Below them, the early morning tourists are looking uncomfortably hot; sweating, wiping brows and complaining about the smell, the noise, the bugs and the heat. They seem oblivious to the fact that just a few weeks earlier these amazing structures, and no doubt the homes of those repairing them, were drowning beneath several metres of putrid flood water. But why should they know and why should they care? Thai’s recover quickly, it’s in their nature, they just seem to get over things and get on with things far more easily than we ever could in the West. A solitary monk stands silently beside me, watching the same group of people and gently nodding his head. He’s probably also wondering why so many fortunate people seem to travel only in order to find new things to complain about, but as a monk he’ll probably keep those thoughts to himself. He glances down into my open notebook and then points towards the Retro 110, ‘SuperCub, it looks like new’. I tell him that it is new, but that it’s not a SuperCub, and that’s the end of the motorcycle conversation. We talk for an hour about his new life as a monk, and about his previous life as a wayward husband and absent father. The temple had been his saviour, taking him in and turning him around when life had seemed to have abandoned him. I’ve never before talked so openly or candidly with a monk, nor any other man of religion, but his duties at the temple are calling him and we go our separate ways.
The vast Central Plains of Thailand are absolutely flat, perfect for the limited power of the Retro 110 but I suspect not so effective when it come to the draining of flood water. I’ve ridden north from Bangkok for seven hours and the only hills that I’ve climbed have all been made by man. The Gulf of Thailand is at least three hundred kilometres to the south and probably less than a metre lower than where I’m standing right now. I’ve stopped in a small village to replenish the Retro’s three litre fuel tank and I chat idly with the attendant. I point to the traditional wooden houses built high on stilts, and then across the road to the modern western style bungalows with their concrete walls and front yards that are now littered with flood damaged furniture and white goods. The attendant shrugs his shoulders, replaces the nozzle and begins to explain. He lives in the traditional stilted wooden house, the house that was built by his father, naturally ventilated in summer and safe above the damaging flood waters. His daughter lives in one of the many modern western style bungalows, expensively air conditioned in summer and clearly susceptible to flooding. He doesn’t seem to blame anybody for these errors of progress, or even suggest that they should return to the old ways of building their homes, he just shrugs his weary shoulders and mutters the Thai equivalent of ‘whatever’; ‘mai pen rai kap’.
A little further north, I enter the town of Phi Chit where the local kids are waiting to greet me. Passing every humble home, cafe or market, buckets of water are thrown over me and if I dare to stop, my cheeks are lovingly plastered with a white menthol powder. I haven’t been singled out for such refreshing attention, in fact, unless I lift my visor then they’ve no idea that I’m not Thai but it’s clear that they don’t discriminate. It seems that everybody, even the passing motorcycle policeman, is a legitimate target during Song Kran. The Thai tradition of cleansing the images of Buddha at Son Kran has progressed, and it appears that Northern Thailand is currently engaged in the world’s largest ever water fight. It’s fun and the kid's enthusiasm is addictive, so I park the Retro 110, grab myself a water scoop and join them until darkness dictates that we stop.
I’m spending the night at the family home of my good friend Nongnoo in the small village of Ban Noen Kum. I sit down to eat dinner with grandparents, young nursing mothers and children of all ages. Aside from my friend Nongnoo and her nursing sisters, there’s nobody of working-age at the table, an entire generation seems to be missing. In fact, I don’t really recall seeing many people of working-age all day, aside that is from those who I’d actually seen working. I pose the question and the answer isn’t quite what I’d expected. I’m told that those who are able to work will be working throughout the whole of the Song Kran holiday. They go on to tell me that it didn’t used to be this way, entire families always came together for the festival, but in these days of easy credit and minimum monthly payments, the aspirations of parents have become the expectations of their children. Isuzu D-Max trucks, iPhones, plasma TV’s and Japanese scooters all cost money, money that’s readily available via Mastercard and Visa, so the workers work in order to keep up with their payments. Looking around me I can see exactly what they mean. Bright orange tractors have replaced the diesel powered tak-taks and grass powered buffalo that used to work the rice fields, everybody here has a phone that’s far smarter than mine, every wooden shack has its own large satellite dish and nobody drives a car that’s any older than the fashionable designer labelled clothes that they all seem to wear. Suddenly, I feel like the poorest guy in the village, but I’m not, I just don’t have as many credit cards. Asian, African, European or American, between us we have many differences, but it seems that we’re all now swimming in exactly the same dream pool.
Rolling into remote Asian villages aboard the Tiger Retro 110, I tend not to get noticed. Shoulders back and head held high, the Retro buzzes and the people simply ignore me and carry on with their everyday lives. I pull to a dusty halt, kill the engine and absolutely nothing unusual happens. Aboard the little scooter I’m blending in, an invisible part of the massive cultural landscape and able to observe without being noticed. Of course, once I park the scooter and dismount the people realise that I’m not local and ask their questions. But, the nature of their questions has changed. Unlike the Triumph Tiger 955i the Tiger Retro 110 isn’t important or special to anybody, it casts no unwanted shadows. A barrier between us had been removed and our conversations are now about the most important things in all of our lives: People and Life.