Unforgettable Panama to China; Two Women Two Motorcycles
“What’s the weather like in Ukraine?” asked the Panamanian policeman, in Spanish, at the roadblock on our first day on the bikes after leaving Panama City. “Mucha nieve”, I responded hastily with not the faintest idea of the reality. He was looking at our temporary motorcycle importation document which a grumpy, one-fingered typist in the customs office had filled in a couple of days previously. She had insisted on putting UK on the form, rather than GB as we requested, and so our bikes became Ukrainian. What two foreign (English) women were doing on Ukrainian bikes in Panama was fortunately not a question that occurred to him. After a couple more exchanges about Ukraine (where we have never been), he waved us on happily.
This was the start of 16 months’ travel with our trusty dual-purpose bikes, Honda Falcon NX400s through 15 countries, which happened in a serendipitous fashion, with very little advance planning. We sent the bikes to Panama in November 2009 and rode up through Central America through every country, except Belize, to Los Angeles. We and the bikes then flew to Tokyo for three months in Japan before we took a ferry to Korea, where we spent another month. Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia were the final countries on this trip and we shipped the bikes back to the UK from Bangkok in March during 2011, while we went backpacking in China for a few weeks.
Here are some of the highlights.
In Guatemala, we lived briefly in a wooden hut up in the cloud forest with a local family, hunting for the resplendent quetzal, Guatemala’s elusive national bird. After eating tortillas and beans for three days and dodging the baby that screamed every time she saw us, Manuel told us that actually it was the wrong season for quetzals. Ah well, it’s an eco project that aims to reduce deforestation by giving the locals some other income…
However in Mexico, it was the right season to see millions of Mariposas or Monarch Butterflies in their winter feeding grounds in the forests west of Mexico City. It takes five generations of butterflies to make the hazardous journey down from the Great Lakes in North America – the ones that arrive have never been here before….. A thick carpet of orange and yellow and brown butterflies coated the paths and the green trees. Autumn seemed to have come early.
Still in Mexico, we were welcomed in by the family that owned the car park, some distance away from our hostel, in the steeply-cobbled silver town of Taxco, where the town’s 300 taxis are all old white Volkswagen beetles. We arrived cold, wet and tired and Rosa fed us coffee and cake. It poured down for three days and each day we went back to pay for the parking and each day Rosa fed us more wonderful Mexican food.
We are part of a wonderful international motorcycle adventure community called Horizons Unlimited. In Japan we met a delightful Korean rice-farming biker, married to a Japanese lady, who invited us to come and stay. Pat and I spent a unique weekend planting a field of rice each, by machine. Over the next few months Paco (our only common language is Spanish – I don’t know his Korean name!) emailed us pictures of our burgeoning rice fields.
In Korea we visited the school my grandfather built in 1924 (now a college of 3000 students), met a bunch of Korean motorcyclists and did a lot of camping. At every site, complete strangers came up with a plate of hot food as we were putting up our tent. The hospitality was amazing.
Pat’s grandfather was the chief engineer on the East Coast Railway in Malaysia, so we had to go and admire the splendid bridges he also built. They have a special path clipped onto the side for motorcycles, saving a 40km detour in one case. We got welcomed into the motorcycle community here as well and arriving in Ramadan, had a few pre-conceptions shattered. Ramadan is party time. You fast (we just ate surreptitiously!) from sunrise to sunset and then go out on the razzle, getting drunk on coffee, coca cola and chatting to your mates till the early hours. We were exhausted by the end of a month of this! We also discovered a group of about 50 women near Kuala Lumpur, most of them in headscarves, riding considerably flashier bikes than us! Most of them were married, several with small children, and their menfolk were hugely encouraging.
Then up into Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, where we tried to get to grips with that region’s tangled history. The Bridge over the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi in Thailand is a tourist hot-spot, but Hellfire Pass nearby was one of the most fascinating and moving places we have ever been to. A 2.5 mile stretch of the Burma death railway has been reclaimed from the jungle, by the Australians, and its harrowingly detailed history unfolds as you walk through the Museum.
The northern reaches of Laos are astonishingly beautiful with limestone karst mountains rising starkly in the mist, beside peaceful rivers. Stunningly rich monasteries in the World Heritage City of Luang Prabang contrast with villages of straw huts either side of dirt roads, where naked toddlers wander out in front of your bike.
In Cambodia, torn apart by the Pol Pot regime and heavy bombing during the Vietnam war, corruption is the name of the game. We have never seen so many big black Lexus 4x4s anywhere in the world.
Safely back home, our memories are not just of the roads we travelled and the sights we saw, but rather of the people we met and friends we made along the way. The biggest hazard for any traveller is traffic, not strangers. And the scariest bit? Deciding to do it and actually setting off…. Would we do it again? After Pat has rebuilt the bikes and I’ve learned some Russian….Ulan Bator here we come.
Article by Sheonagh Ravensdale, sharing a special account of their journey for MOTORESS
Pat Thomson, 58 at the time, and Sheonagh Ravensdale, 62 at the time, took a 16 month global trip on their motorbikes – through 15 countries in 16 months. They clocked up 22,000 miles on their Red Honda falcon 400cc bikes.