Riding and roadkill in Thailand with Elspeth Beard
Elspeth enjoys everything the Thai roads have to offer in this excerpt from 'Lone Rider'
Check out this excerpt from Elspeth Beards’ award-winning book 'Lone Rider' about her 35,000 mile solo adventure around the world on her 1974 BMW R60/6. In this section we join Elspeth on a 1,200 mile dash across South East Asia in order to board a ship to Mardas!
To read the full story grab a copy of Lone Rider here and to meet Elspeth in person join us at The Armchair Adventure Festival this September where she will be talking about her around the world trip!
Southern Thailand, 10 April 1984
For five long, hot, tiring days I’d ridden towards the equator, skimming the Burmese border on the skinny section of the Thai peninsula, somewhere between the lazy beaches of the south and bustling Bangkok and the plains to the north. I had to be in Penang in three days to catch a cargo ship across the Bay of Bengal to Madras.
I had ridden up to the Thai–Burma border in search of a route through to India and on to Nepal. Until now, I’d travelled rich in time, but poor in money. Now, for the first time, I had a deadline and a direct overland route that promised considerable savings of both when they were running out fast. Largely ignorant of what might lie ahead, I’d arrived at the border having heard conflicting reports about a possible route through Burma, as Myanmar was then known. But as I stood gazing at Burma, hazy in the distance that sweaty, overcast afternoon, I didn’t need my makeshift map to tell me that the roadblock in front of me marked more than the end of this particular road. I’d run out of road and options, so I began the long journey to Penang in Malaysia, more than 1,200 sticky miles ahead.
It was for times like this that I loved riding my bike. Those moments when all thoughts of the past and future slipped away and I existed entirely in the present, the morning light clear and golden, throwing shadow bands across the road as I carved my way around the world. I was twenty-four years old, a young architecture graduate with little experience of the world and hardly any money in my pocket at a time long before the advent of mobile phones, GPS, internet and email.
As I rode and the days and miles ticked past, I spoke to my bike, cajoling her with promises of an oil change and a clean air filter if she got me to Penang in time. It was the kind of bargain I’d struck many times since leaving London nearly eighteen months earlier. With a couple of bags over my shoulder, the takings of a summer’s pub work in my pocket and yearnings for my ex-boyfriend in my heart. I’d departed carrying a widely ridiculed dream of riding a motorcycle right around the globe, something which, to my knowledge, no woman and few men had ever done.
I treated my nine-year-old BMW R60/6 well, cared for my darling as I would any old lady with too many miles on the clock. More than 18,000 miles together; another 15,000 to go.
On that golden southern Thai morning, I was riding on a small dusty country road a few miles from the main highway that carried all the traffic up the peninsula from Malaysia, Singapore to Bangkok. My speed was creeping towards 60 mph; too fast and I knew it.
That’s when I hit the dog.
A dark green truck, stacked high with baled goods, had been approaching on the opposite carriageway, blocking my view of the far side of the road. As it passed, the dog shot out from behind it into my path. It never stood a chance. Within seconds I was sliding up the road, watching my bike as it disappeared out of sight into a ditch.
When everything had stopped moving, I staggered to my feet. I looked around, but the dog was gone. I limped over to my BMW, which had hit a tree, its front wheel and exhaust wedged against its trunk. My metal pannier boxes had been ripped off the back of my bike and the mirrors, indicators and other parts were scattered all over the road. I was alone, a thousand miles from anyone I knew, in a country whose language I didn’t speak and couldn’t read, on a road I didn’t know.
While I’d been contemplating my predicament, five men had appeared from a small farm on the side of the road. I got them to help me pull the bike off the tree, out of the ditch and up onto the side of the road.
She was a sorry sight.
I kicked through the long grass along the road’s edge as I searched the surrounding area for my bike’s missing parts. Within ten minutes I’d located everything and I was sitting, on a wooden platform in the shade of a large tree at the side of the road, surrounded by a large crowd of Thais. I guessed they were all one big family, staring at me while I clenched my teeth as the mother of the farm dabbed at my wounds with Mercurochrome, a bright pink antiseptic they called curo, all over my hands, legs and knees.
Walking around my bike, examining her more closely, I found her looks had taken a severe battering. Her silencers were dented, her headlight smashed. There was a large dent in her tank and scratches all over. But these were just cosmetic injuries. The physical state of her exhaust pipes and cylinders concerned me more. Having taken the brunt of the collision with the tree, one of the exhaust pipes now emerged from its cylinder at an acute angle which would allow the exhaust gases to escape. Her other cylinder had a crash bar pushed hard against it and looked as if it might be bent.
The keys were still in her ignition, so I twisted them. She fired up immediately and didn’t sound too bad. Not for the first time, I thanked solid German engineering but I soon noticed oil was pouring out. I suspected a broken gasket.
A pick-up truck drew up and the eldest son jumped down, bare-chested, his hand held out with a smile. He pointed with his thumb at the truck.
‘Doctor.’ The first word of English I’d heard in several days.
For a moment I considered refusing his offer, but it made sense. He explained he’d learnt English at school as he drove me to a small clinic where a nurse looked at my cuts, wrote tetanus on a card, raised her eyebrows.
On the way back to the farm, passing through a village we passed a shack with a row of scooters outside it so I asked if we could stop.
The workshop had everything I needed, including a vice to straighten my bike’s bent exhaust pipes. I explained in sign language what I needed to do and returned with my bike a short while later, chugging and trailing oil.
I started work with the owner of the shop helping me, but he soon realized that I knew more about my bike than he did and left me to it. Struggling at times to grasp even a spanner, I stripped down the cylinder, taking two hours to do what I would normally do in one. As I’d suspected, the base gasket was damaged. I found a spare in my tool box, fitted it, then bent the exhaust back into shape as far as I dared without risking a crack in it.
I thanked the shop owner, offered him some money, but he simply shook my hand and his head. He wouldn’t let me pay for anything.
I rode back to the farm where the family had kindly offered to look after my bashed up metal boxes while I’d been at the bike shop. I started to rebuild my metal pannier boxes, but my hand injuries made drilling and riveting very difficult and painful. The three sons had never seen a pop rivet gun before and were very happy to help. I pointed where I needed them to drill and rivet. By dusk, we had fixed them back onto my bike and I was ready to leave.
The three brothers insisted I should stay with their family until I had fully recovered. In no mental or physical condition to ride, I gratefully accepted and was shown into a small room. It had a wooden floor and no furniture except for a twenty-four-inch television, huge by the standards of the day.
Unable to understand a single word, I enjoyed every minute of it.
After the programmes ended, the mother brought in a pile of blankets. Taking one each, we lay down beside each other: father, mother, grandmother, the sons and me and went to sleep. Or in my case, tried to go to sleep. Bruised all over, aching in every muscle and limb, I found it impossible to get comfortable on the hard floor, tossing and turning through the night. Eventually, delirious with exhaustion, I drifted off into a fitful sleep.
And so it continued for two days and three nights, a simple routine of lazing around, sleeping and watching television, eating rice, meat and vegetables, while my body healed itself.
On April 17, the day before the Madras boat was due to sail from Penang, I felt ready to leave. I packed up my things, then went to say goodbye to all the family. I found the mother in the kitchen and wandered over to thank her for her extraordinary hospitality. Clutching her small bottle of curo, she extended a creased hand and offered me the antiseptic. I was very touched and leant towards her, intending to hug her, but my eyes were drawn to something extraordinary behind the woman, on the table.
The dog I’d run over.
Most of the animal was missing, but it was unmistakable. The knife marks were straight and clean, the work of a skilled butcher. Well, that explained the generous portions of meat with every meal.
For a few moments, not knowing what to say or do, I hesitated. Then I accepted the offer of the curo, clasping my hands together in front of my chest and bowing my head with a smile to show my thanks.
Now that really is making the most of everything the road has to offer! To find out if Elspeth ever made it Madras, grab a copy of Lone Rider here.
Don't forget too that you can meet Elspeth in person and hear her talk about the whole trip at The Armchair Adventure Festival 2022. Find out more and grab your ticket here. Early bird prices end 31/5 so buy before the end of the month to avoid paying more - secure tickets here!