Thailand motorcycle trip: prelude

View Larger Map

Back in South Korea, I made a friend of an American by the name of Jesse and one thing we had in common was a keen interest about engines mounted on two wheels: motorcycles. Back then he told me he was suppose to go to Thailand in some months to meet up with a his girlfriend from back home and do a visa-run (leave the country to get a new visa). Since I was probably to be in the region at that moment, we thought about meeting and doing some riding over there.

In Thailand and for that matter South-East Asia, scooters and motorcycles are readily  available and cheap (150 baht a day so a bit more than 5$) so its the thing to do there. However, everywhere you see tourists all bandaged up on one side and hear horror stories of road-related fatalities. Treacherous machines they are, but did that deter me from getting one?

Of course not.

On my first trip in France with my girlfriend in the back, I met at la grotte du Mas d’Azil an older gentleman riding around by himself on a small escapade of a couple days, something he had been doing regularly for about 50 years. We struck conversation and talked about various things, but I remember one of his sayings:

A good motorcyclist is a motorcyclist that’s alive.

And a dead one is a bad one? It sounded like an empty statement at the time, but several thousand kilometers later, I have now understood what the message is about: be careful, drive defensively, measure every move. It’s not a race, it’s about the journey.

Somewhere in Northern Thailand

Somewhere in Northern Thailand

The quest for Durian

The title of a science-fiction novel I’m writing recounting the search by a brave group of space explorers for a mysterious planet.

No durians!No, I’m kidding, it’s just a post about this strange fruit and my attempt at trying it. It all started in the Singapore metro when I noticed a sign, that on top of advising the riders that it was prohibited to smoke, eat or carry inflammable goods also banned durian. Curious, I documented myself on the thing as soon as I got to my hostel and realized it was a fruit. A fruit? That you can’t have with you in the metro? I must try it. Upon discussing it with my Singaporean friends they informed me that it was indeed a delicacy, but a smelly one with a peculiar “love it or hate it” taste. So smelly and incommoding to some that for this reason it was banned from public transportation. Regrettably, all my attempts at finding some provided futile in Singapore, as it was not the season.

From that point on, the durian would come back and haunt me from time to time. It was a recent afternoon while walking in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with Jesse that I told him about this coveted fruit and its strange properties and instantly he was convinced that we should attempt to find some. So we asked at a nearby Thai restaurant where we could find it in town and the lady kindly directed us to the produce market on the outskirts of the old city.

Once at the market, it took us some time before we could lay our eyes on some prepared durian but eventually we spotted it. In fact, we had seen the entire fruit numerous times before, but since we had no idea on how to prepare it, not even sure we would like it and not forgetting that its about the size of melon, we figured it would be more reasonable to get its precut in small quantity. Not a whole lot we found and it was very expensive. According to a expatriate also purchasing some there, also not of the best quality, but we had not walked this far to come back durian-less. So we purchased the smallest piece we could find, some rice, some meat skewers and ate that small dinner on the curb and had the durian for dessert.

Finally, durian!

Finally, durian!

To our great surprise, it was delicious. Tasty but with a lot of character. To quote the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace: “A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it“. Satisfied by our durian experience, we decided to leave some for later so I wrapped the rest back in its plastic tray, put it in a plastic bag which I tied in a knot and stuffed the package in my backpack. It was not that smelly anyway, so we started to wonder what all the fuss was really about. Back at our hostel, I moved the durian to a drawer and we headed out for a night out in town.

When we came back the whole dorm was filled with the strong stench of the fruit. An odor akin to smelly feet but with a touch of sweetness. There it was, the famous durian smell we laughed, but since it was nothing unpleasant to our noses we went to bed (without much consideration for our roommates). The next morning, we decided to make it up to those who had to endure the smell the whole night so I pulled the durian out of its packaging and offered some to everyone in the common area, including the owner of the hostel, who upon seeing the fruit cried: “So that’s what it was! The Thai cleaning lady has been telling me all morning that there was a durian in the room.” And then he kindly refused our offer as he was not really a fan but warned us that the next time, we should keep it outside.

To our delight, the durian was even tastier that morning than it was the day before.


Thailand Part 2: the north (Chiang Mai)

A monk passing by

Having a drink with new found friends in Bangkok

Having a drink with new found friends in Bangkok

A two hour ferry cruise and nine hour bus ride and we were in Bangkok. There, we had enough time to make it to the night bus to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern capital and second largest city ( but nowhere as big a Bangkok). The only bus that had any room left was the last one so we had a bit of time to kill, which we decided to spend at some beverage stall down the road from the station to have a few beers with stray dogs and locals. Realizing instantly that we were foreigners, some Thais around a crate on the curb waved us to come over for a beer (served in a glass full of ice). Offerings of cigarettes later and many cheers, we had engaged in a rudimentary conversation. None of them could really speak any English and much less us Thai, but through gestures we managed to exchange some pieces of information. They visibly appeared super stoked that they were spending a moment with us, but it took some time for Jesse and I to shed the suspicion that we had gathered during our stay in more touristic spots in Thailand, where usually when a local comes to you, it’s to get to your wallet. One man kept signing me to go to the stall to order something and at first I thoughts he wanted me to buy him a beer, but eventually, I realized that he wanted me to get myself a glass so he could pour me some of his own. Very nice of him and I also ended up buying him and his friends a beer. One of them even went so far as walking us to our gate at the station and making sure with the attendant that we would board the correct bus. Finally, there was the Thai hospitality mentioned so often in the Lonely Planet guide, but of which I had yet to witness any manifestation. Jesse and I became hopeful again for the next installment of the trip as both of us had gotten really disillusioned with the overly artificial atmosphere reigning king on the islands.

I'm a monk!

I’m a monk!

The morning after, we arrived in Chiang Mai and not too motivated towards browsing the massive hostel selection of the city, we settled for the first sensible one we came across. There, we took possession of our beds, dropped off our travelling apparatus and after an internet session headed out for a walk around town. Chiang Mai is famous for being a spiritual center as well so temples are abundant as are monks dressed in their Buddhist costumes. Thai temples are quite pretty and somewhat peculiar in their architectures, which is a striking departure from that which I had seen everywhere else Asia. But with any buildings of this type, its only a game of outdoing the neighboring temple so soon enough we became saturated, or “templed out” as they say. While strolling around, we had been handed a couple of flyers advertising Thai boxing fight so we decided that this shall be our Friday night-out but before, we had to find some durian, a quest which for the sake of being concise (and to leave more space for random stories), I have detailed in another post.

Thai boxing fight

Thai boxing fight

After a light street food dinner, we were sitting in a large covered arena waiting for the contenders of the fight. The procession sort of dragged on but soon enough, people were taking jabs and kicks at each other with the crowd cheering around the ring. The first two fights were between men and both ended in knockouts while the following combats were to be between females in a tournament form. We stuck around for a couple of confrontations – which were spectacular not by the force of the hits but by the rate of them – and decided that we had seen enough for the night. A quick stop for an overly spicy snack and we were both in bed and fast asleep, in my case from having spent some odd days sleeping on a concrete floor and lastly in a bus.

Night market in Chiang Mai

Night market in Chiang Mai

I dedicated the next day to work and writing but for the evening, Jesse and I met up with Georgia, someone I had met back in Malaysia and who happened to be in town. We again went for a meal at the night food market, took a walk around the absolutely gigantic Saturday market, at which Georgia, her trip drawing to an end, loaded up with souvenirs. Surprisingly, they had a whole lot of nice things there but since I’m not nearly done with my travels, had to abstain from burdening myself up with more things. In the end, the market was so large that we had to tuk-tuk back in town and for a destination picked an Irish bar as I was craving a glass of whisky. After, we headed to Chiang Mai’s party block and chilled there for some time handing roses Georgia had purchased from a street vendor to random men for them to give away to ladies.

In retrospect, we must have been pretty inebriated. Later in front of a 7-Eleven we were planning to go to for snacks, we decided that the fried insect stall was a better food option and purchased for 30 baht a plate full of differently sized crickets, frogs and larvae. In a few minutes me and Jesse had gobbled the whole thing down under the perplexed look of Georgia, who could only muster enough courage to eat one or two grasshoppers. The kindly spirited individuals that we are, we offered some of our fare to every passing tourist, but understandably, fried insect are not a popular thing with foreigner so most would politely refuse our gesture. That being said, we spotted more than a few Thais coming up to the stall for a bag full of fried critters, so it’s not just a tourist thing. This episode would later be referred between the three of us as the “Smörgåsbord“, of which my favorite were the larvae/maggots.

The next day, Jesse and I had planned to leave on our motorcycle trip but that night, we certainly did not go to bed early.

Want a tasty larvae?

Want a tasty larvae?

Thailand Part 1: the south

In a Thai train

In a Thai train

At the border between Thailand and Malaysia, my two travelling companions had decided to catch a train so I figured it would be best for me to do the same. Trains, as oppposed to buses which always tend to resemble each other are a mean of transpiration with a bit more personality. We boarded the 14 o’clock to Bangkok and took out seats in a car that must have been build around the 60′s with ceiling fans, refurbished seats and … no windows, just openings. At least that took care of the ambient heat, but made the voyage very noisy and windy. Something that was easily bearable at the beginning of it, but which became unsupportable after 12 hours. Alas, around two in the morning, we alighted in Surat Thani, where we checked in the only hotel around the station.

A few hours of sleep later, Georgia (from Canada) parted way with us as she had to proceed to Bangkok while Greta (from Italy) and I stuck together as we were pretty much taking the same route from then on: Koh Phangan and then Koh Tao, two very popular islands in South Thailand. After an hour or so walking around and getting confusing directions to the ferry terminal, we finally figured out that it was an hour’s bus ride outside of town. There our choices were also sort of limited and only found a way to our island by transiting through Koh Samui, the bigger island on the south, full of resorts and things we both could not afford. Originally, I had intended to go directly to Koh Tao, the diving island, but Greta had convinced me to stop for a few days on Koh Phangan, the debauchery island, famous for hosting the full moon parties, where all the young travelers in the region converge for a drug fueled night of dancing on the beach. My schedule could afford this deviation.

Koh Phangan

Finally, after two full days of transportation we arrived at our intended destination. There we made the decision to share an hotel room as it made more logistical sense at the time, checked into one and left for dinner. Finding a restaurant provided to be quite a challenge as on top of being vegetarian, Greta was also Italian but eventually, she settled for a place that had a large selection of meat-less dishes and we both ordered a tofu pad thai. Later, a very stereotypical Italian by the name of Daniele that she had met at the airport in Malaysia turned up and we got together for drinks. There, Greta started complaining about stomach pains which progressively during the evening, got worse. Back in the hotel room, she rushed to the bathroom and emptied herself in such a jet of liquid that for a moment I thought she was actually taking a shower. While asleep and thanks to my ability to snooze through jackhammers, I had imagined her ailment had only been transient but felt disappointed to learn in the morning that she had barely gotten any rest and spent much of the night hugging the toilet. We had had the exact same meal, which had most likely been cooked simultaneously in the same pan and I felt normal. My ramblings about the complexities of the human digestive system did not really console her, we had came here to party off the moral righteousness of Malaysian and instead, she was to be bed ridden and weak who god knows how many days.

Steven's tattoo

Steven’s tattoo

That morning, Daniele turned up with his new roommate, Steven a pretty cool Irishman. Villages in Koh Phangan are almost made entirely of restaurants, hotels, bars, tattoo shops and clinics, which sort of gives you a rough idea of the kind of activity people indulge in on that island. Steven, inebriated like a proper Irish person often is had asked the barmaid the night before to draw him a picture of “boy meets girls”, which he then promptly had tattooed on his shoulder at the next door parlor. Obviously very hangover the next day, he had forgotten about this little adventure but got his memory refreshed by the avalanche of derogatory comments about his drunken stupidity on his Facebook feed. What amazes me was his ability to take the whole situation with humor, which for a moment distracted Greta away from her stomach issues. He first came across to me a drunken foreigner idiot out for a bout of binge drinking in Thailand, but the more we discussed the more I discovered the intelligent side of him. He actually worked for the Game of Thrones TV series and anyone who watches the least bit of television has heard of this magnificently executed production. Steven had loads of crazy stories to tell about the filming and gave me some pretty cool insider details on how they manage to turn papier mâché structures into awesome castles.

At the Black Moon Party

At the Black Moon Party

That night was the night of the black moon party, the reason we had come to the island and luckily, Greta began feeling better and better as the day progressed. Since the full moon party can only happen once every 28 days or so, the locals organize a black moon party (no moon) and two half moon parties to make sure the influx of tourist to their island stays relatively constant. So that evening, after some pretty good pizza at an Italian joint chosen by none other than Daniele, we boarded a taxi and made our way to some undisclosed location in the jungle. I’m not going to do into lengths describing the event because 1) it sort of sucked and 2) it’s not my sort of thing, but it had a setup made of funky sculptures and large mushroomy dome covering the dance floor. Fluorescent body painting stands greatly outnumbered those where you could actually purchase (overpriced) liquor at and the music was of the psychedelic trance type which to the untrained hear sounded like the exact same beat looping over and over again. Obviously, half the people there must have been on shrooms (drugs). We left pretty early considering the event was to end at 10 in the morning but at least we got that box checked.

Not a bad place to have lunch!

Not a bad place to have lunch!

Not much happened the following day but at night, we had planned to try the famous mushroom shakes, which ended up falling through as only Steven and I were up for it. This evening though, we were finally informed about the place to be for that sort of think on Koh Phangan, a bar only accessible by boat, open 24/7 and which tips off the police to stay away. Basically a drug supermarket, where weird things happen and from which people don’t really come back, but most likely because having spent all their money on psychedelics, can no longer afford the steep cost of a longboat back.

Koh Tao

Already quite fed up with the climate on the party island, I was anxious to get to Koh Tao, the diving one. Rimas, a friend, was expecting me and Jesse, an American I had met while in Seoul and with which I had planned to do some motorcycling around Thailand was also arriving on that same day. I left the others behind and took the ferry where I met a girl who upon laying her eyes on my Utila t-shirt, told me she had also spent a month there and after a few minutes of conversation, we realized that we had been following each other’s footsteps in Central-America by a week’s interval. She had been at the same diving school as me and had met and befriended the people I knew there; small world, good memories. Once in Koh Tao, my two friends were staying at opposite ends but I immediately took a cab to Rimas’ side of the island, where within a couple of minutes of meeting him he kindly offered me his couch in a small apartment he was renting. With accommodation sorted out for the next few days I unpacked my things and set out to rent a scooter for me and Rimas to drive to Sairee beach, a town some kilometers north where Jesse was staying.

The traffic on this island is crazy and unsurprisingly, you see people bandaged up all over from falling and scraping and still you see most of them riding in flip-flops and without helmets. To be honest, I would have rather not rented a scooter, but the taxis there run a cartel and fix the prices. Going to Sairee beach from the southern tip of the island is 400 baht (14$) one way while a scooter for 24 hours is 150 baht. It’s easy to guess which is he more economical option. I met up with Jesse and two other guys he had met on the way there, an Italian and a Portuguese, we all had dinner and went to a beach bar for some fire shows. Around 2 in the morning, I hoped on my scooter and slowly drove back to Rimas’ apartment, knowing that in spite of having limited my alcohol intake, if I was in Canada I would probably be over the legal limit but this being Thailand and on Koh Tao in particular, the police turns a blind eye to drunk driving.

Koh Tao seen from one of its mountains

Koh Tao seen from one of its mountains

Rimas was diving with Buddah View so I figured I should give them a try. I took the morning easy and in the afternoon booked a UV night dive with them and proceeded to visit the island on my scooter. While it was for the most part driving on steep dirt roads, the island had a few mountains which offered some great panoramas. Later, my ride surrendered back to its owner, I prepared my equipment for the night dive and hoped on the pick-up truck which took me to the boat dock and boarded the diving vessel. This is also where I was told the dive was not UV, it was just a normal dive. A UV dive is done at night and is the underwater equivalent of being in a club full of UV lights. You where a special lens on top of you mask and carry an ultraviolet torch in lieu of a normal one and supposedly, it makes the wildlife and plants down there glow in very psychedelic ways.

There is a staggering number of dive shops on Koh Tao, more than 40 I think. Since most of them cannot afford to have direct access to a dock, their ships all moor at the island’s main pier and they transport their customers between there and their shop on trucks. Some have air compressors on board their ships, but most of time, the crew has load and unload all the tanks as well. Quite a pain in the butt compared to what I am used to. Anyway, we sent to site called Junkyard, which is flat sand patch with a bunch of metal structures, a truck and some other items like a gym set scattered around. Not that interesting, but that night, I set a personal record of 70 minutes under, probably owing to the fact that since there was nothing to get excited about, my air consumption remained low due to boredom. On the way back to the shop, I put my name up for the morning’s two dives and met up with Rimas for dinner and some drinks (lots in fact).

Mango Bay

Mango Bay

Up bright and early, same routine of getting to the boat for diving. A ship it should be called actually, as it can take about 50 divers at once and even provides lodging for part of its crew, which while we were returning from the first dive, was chopping up squid and cooking rice. Neat I thought, what a nice snack but no, it was not for us. The first site we visited was named Green Rock and it was only me, Rimas, and the guide. It was fun, lots of swim throughs and little caverns to crawl around, but I came back up with several cuts and scrapes from trying to fit myself into small orifices. In case your wondering blood looks green underwater To my great disappointment, the location of the second dive got changed to Junkyard again, which was day or night, ended up being junk.

I rented a scooter again to visit Jesse and his friends and on my walk to the restaurant, stopped at a small dive shop named New Wave Diving to inquire about their pricing. Instantly, they welcomed me in a very friendly and professional way and right off the bat offered me a decent discount due to my experience. When I asked if they were going to the wreck, they replied that no but they would try to accommodate me by maybe selecting a nearby dive site and dropping me off there. Since I felt I had to give another opportunity for Koh Tao to surprise me, I told them there was a 90% chance I’d be there. Not much happened on that night as my friends were recovering from a Thai whisky hangover so I made home early. The following afternoon, as promised I showed up at the dive shop and just like the previous night, were very welcoming. Much better already, the previous company had became much to large to provide any sort of personalized service and contented itself on churning out divers like a factory, just living off a reputation of excellence in teaching but certainly not in customer service. Some do not really mind but in my case, since I’m almost always going along, I expect to be able to socialize a bit on the dive. Added bonus, I was alone with my guide, who was actually was only a dive master in training so in effect, I was the one taking him out.

This afternoon, we started with a dive at Green Rock, of which I did not see much for my rental mask was fogging all the time. Normally I carry my own. Masks are sort of like underwear, they are adapted to your morphology and being in close proximity with eyes, nose and mouth, can actually transmit diseases and infections if not properly cleaned between users. Stupid me though, I had lost mine on Koh Phangan. For the second dive, my guide kindly offered me his own and we were dropped of at the wreck while the rest of the group kept going to a nearby site. The HTMS Sattakut, an almost 50 meters long ship sunken to make an artificial reef lied almost 30 meters down below. Again the visibility was not that great, especially where the ship contacted the sea floor and we could only stay down so long as my guide had been diving in the morning and would hit his no-decompression limit way before I did but it remains that I really enjoyed my time under. Large fishes, and lots of cool stuff to see down there. After 25 minutes or so, we rose to a shallower depth and started finning westward to another dive site, which would get us closer to the boat. The site, a pinnacle, provided a scenic ascension to the surface from its bottom at 20 meters or so to its top at 5.

Satisfied with my afternoon, I gave farewell to the staff and went purchasing tickets to Bangkok with Jesse. Got back to Rimas’ apartment, dropped my stuff, desalinized, changed, met him for dinner and came back into town for my last night on Koh Tao. We remained for some hours at Jesse’s hostel where they had a party going but later went to a beach bar, where I was supposed to meet Greta. Being the Italian that she is, she was more than an hour late. While looking for her, I ran into a group of Danish guys I had met in the Pehrentians so that was a bit of a coincidence. The night out ended late and I drove my scooter carefully to my end of the island for one last night on the concrete floor. Rimas did not have a mattress, so all I had to rest on was my sleeping back and a couch that soon provided to be too short to sleep on. Early the next day I took my leave from my host, but not before thoroughly thanking him for his hospitality. Since both of us are into the same activity I guess, the chances of seeing each other again are pretty high, especially that he might end up working in Mexico, which thanks to cheap discounted flights is basically next-door to Canada.

Rimas, acting like a Canadian

Rimas, acting like a Canadian

Soon I was aboard the high-speed ferry and Koh Tao was retreating in the distance. Certainly happy I had visited the island, I was nonetheless relieved to leave it. Me and Rimas had discussed this at length some evenings ago and both agreed that we each vastly preferred Utila in Honduras. Understandably, before coming there we had projected our previous experience onto Koh Tao as this is what we had to compare it with. Regrettably, we had raised our expectations too much as for the both of us this island did not deliver (or it did in too great quantities): too much partying, too much people, too much traffic, too big, too many dive shops, too touristic, in short, too much everything. Too bad, since we had both been considering the place for work in the near future. Enough complaining.

Dammit, this was way too much writing for such a short period of time, but I’m in a bus towards Pai at the moment and don’t have much else to do.

How to fix (fsck) a root file system that you have to boot into on Linux

Two days ago I corrupted my file system during a failed resume from standby on Fedora 19. This feature has never quite worked correctly and randomly makes the kernel panic. Usually, I hard reboot my laptop and everything is fine but that time, something went wrong and when it came back up:

systemd-fsck[605]: /dev/sda2: UNEXPECTED INCONSISTENCY; RUN fsck MANUALLY.
systemd-fsck[605]: (i.e., without -a or -p options)
[ 13.652068] systemd-fsck[605]: fsck failed with error code 4.
Welcome to emergency mode. Use "systemctl default" or ^D to activate default
Give root password for maintenance
(or type Control-D to continue):

In this case /dev/sda2 is my root partition and since it was mounted even in maintenance mode, attempting to run fsck on it would output:

fsck.ext4 /dev/sda2
e2fsck 1.42.7 (21-Jan-2013)
/dev/sda2 is mounted.
e2fsck: Cannot continue, aborting.

Which makes sense as common knowledge tells us that running fsck on a mounted file system will most likely do more damage to it.

The best option

Your best option is simply to boot into another Linux, be it on a different partition, a USB drive or a CD and run fsck manually on the faulty partition, which can easily be unmounted if necessary because no OS is using it. Easy. Normally yes, but my stupid Macbook Pro 2008 cannot boot though USB into anything else other than Mac OS X, my cd drive has been dead for years and recently, I got rid of my OS X partition. To make things more complicated, I’m in Thailand at the moment and obviously not able to take apart my computer to grab the hard drive and stick into a working system.

The other option (if you cannot boot into another Linux)

In order to assess the damage, I ran fsck in dry-run mode and piped the output to more to make reading more practical:

fsck,ext4 -n /dev/sda2 | more

From there, I could ensure that no critical files had been damaged and while keeping in mind that it’s always a gamble to use a corrupted file system, I proceeded to boot into the system to make some backups. That out of the way, I did some research on the web on how to fix a root file system that I had to boot into and sadly, not many things turned up for its not an ideal solution. Forcing the system to do it a boot time by creating a file named forcefsck and writing y in it (echo y > /forcefsck) at root no longer works and adding fsck.mode=force on the kernel command line did not fix the problem as fsck will not fix errors on its own without authorization, ie: someone to enter yes on the keyboard. Tried a few other tricks but none worked. I had no choice but keep my fingers crossed and use the system as is.

A few days later, I decided to get back to the issue and while researching alternative solutions, I read that it was possible to fix errors on a read-only file system, which it turns out can also be used to boot into. And it worked, so for posterity here is the technique:

  1. Put your root partition into read-only mode by modifying the faulty partition’s line on /etc/fstab (but remember your old settings):
    UUID=fd1d0fad-3a4c-457f-9b5e-eed021cce3d1 /                       ext4    remount,ro        1 1
  2. Reboot
  3. Switch to runlevel 1 just to minimize the amount of interfering processes:
    init 1
  4. Fix your file system (replace /dev/sda2 with your partition’s device), which should now work because the root partition is in read only:
    fsck /dev/sda2
  5. Reboot
  6. Make your root file system readable/writable:
    mount -o remount,rw /dev/sda2
  7. Restore your /etc/fstab to its original state.
  8. Reboot

Voilà, your system is not safe to use again. Hopefully this will have gotten you out of a sticky situation like it did for me. If errors keep coming up, it’s probably a sign that your hard-drive is failing and before you loose it completely, you should mirror your data to a new one.