Vroom with a view: Exploring Thailand by scooter

Jack Barker takes a bumpy scooter ride through north-east Thailand, stopping off to visit ancient Buddhist temples, play 'snakes', and sample some 'dancing' shrimps
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The Independent Travel

It was an idyllic setting. I was resting on a wicker deck overlooking a set of rapids on the Mekong. The mountains of Laos filled the view. But something disturbed the peace: a pattering sound coming from my plate. My lunch was trying to escape.

Nervously, I lifted the plastic lid covering my meal: shrimp started to emerge on every side. I scooped up a forkful but by the time the implement reached my mouth it was empty, and a spicy Thai dressing speckled my shirt.

I took a tip from the next family along, covered my plate again and shook the shrimp in their spicy marinade. The next forkful was more manageable: instead of jumping clear, the shrimp struggled even to fall from my fork. Fiery spices exploded in my mouth and I immediately understood why the shrimp had been so keen to escape and why they were now so thoroughly stunned. Cooling my mouth with papaya salad, I shovelled another 40 live crustaceans into my mouth: there was barely a tickle on my palate.

"Kung Ten" - which literally translates as "Dancing Shrimp" - is a speciality of Kaeng Kut Ku, a village in north-east Thailand. While most visitors to the nation head south for the islands and beaches, and others aim north-west for hill tribes and mountains, few bother to explore its most populous and agrarian region, Isaan. Good.

In this part of the world transport can be by overcrowded pick-ups and buses, but I wanted my own wheels. I headed for the town of Nong Khai, where a bridge over to Laos ensures a steady trickle of travellers. The passing trade is enough to support a man named Nui to rent out step-through 100cc scooters at £3 per day from a pavement pitch. I turned down the proffered crash helmet, which looked as though it had been in an accident or two already, and used my own cycle helmet, which was probably safer and, in the tropical heat, would be cooler. I strapped my shoulder bag onto the back seat, hopped on the scooter and drove off in search of a petrol station.

Unfortunately, looking only for forecourts, signs and pumps, I drove straight out of town without finding fuel. As buildings gave way to green fields with buffalo wallowing in pools of mud I throttled back nervously, and my great expedition started with an ignominious U-turn. I headed back into Nong Khai and stopped at a small shop with a rack of litre bottles, with cork stoppers. They looked like moonshine, but the shopkeeper poured two straight into my tank. I was on my way.

The road dipped down to the Mekong and climbed small hills as I thundered modestly through the countryside to my first destination, the riverside town of Bung Khan. It turned out to be more appealing than its name (meaning "plague pond") suggested. From a river-front guest house, I watched the scooter "passagiata" flowing up and down the esplanade. The next morning I drove away from the Mekong into a flat, alluvial landscape, following an increasingly narrow series of tracks to a sudden sandstone outcrop that appeared with all the unexpected grandeur of Ayers Rock.

In this religious country, the Buddhist monks can be relied upon to make the most of any natural feature by creating a temple complex around it. But Wat Phu Thok is an ambitious venture by any standards. Wobbly wooden steps climb the vertical mountain walls, using paths that thread through natural fissures to reach a series of walkways pinned to the sheer rock walls.

Simple tropical hardwoods form a somewhat precarious set of meditation platforms that circle the mountain, each representing a different state of enlightenment. There are various temples: in one, a small human skeleton has been assembled in a case; at another, a group of monks handed me a digital camera and asked me to take their picture.

To symbolise the mystery of the final level of enlightenment, the top of the mountain has been left in its natural state. It was here, as I clambered over tree roots and vines, that I began to wonder how I'd find my way back. At that moment a dog appeared, noiselessly leading me down through the levels back to the main monastery below. I don't know what this dog had been in a previous life but, if my gratitude carries any weight, its next incarnation will be human.

As I left Wat Phu Thok, the countryside took on a somewhat apocalyptic air, with smoke rising from countless fields burning rice stubble. In this untouristy region you will never find yourself short of somewhere to stay: almost any farming family will put you up for the equivalent of a pound or two, plus the benefit of some entertainment as they observe your strange foreign ways. But it was time for some city comforts, so I motored on to Udon Thani, the largest town in the north-east - and promptly drove into a police block.

Everyone was being stopped, their documents checked. My turn and the policeman, pistol in his belt, asked "Do your have a license?" and I answered "No".

Even to me, sitting on a motorcycle and looking faintly ridiculous in a bicycle helmet, this sounded a little curt, so I added, hopefully, "I do have a passport", which was polite but not, in fact, true, as I'd handed it over as a deposit for the scooter.

In the end it didn't matter. The policeman smiled and waved me through.

I found a city-centre hotel, rolled my scooter into the lobby, and - after a long day in the saddle - collapsed onto a comfortable bed. For tourists, Udon Thani's main claim to fame is the archeological site at Ban Chiang. Here, the local population mastered turning pig-iron into steel 5,500 years ago - a time when Europeans were hitting each other with stones.

In the small museum I found the ancient techniques clearly explained, which may yet stand me in good stead should I ever find myself marooned on a desert island. Until then, I headed back to the banks of the Mekong, to the wooden shop-houses of Chiang Khan. This is one of the few riverside towns to preserve their old buildings rather than knocking them down to create a waterfront esplanade. Just five miles from the "Dancing Shrimp" village, it was a good place to relax for the night.

The great thing about travelling on a small, step-through scooter is that after an hour in the saddle you'll take any excuse to dismount. In a car, I might have swept through every village: on a bike I was always stopping. This might have been for a meal, invariably freshly-cooked, delicious and spicy. Or it might be to refuel, from a rack of roadside bottles or a 40-gallon drum with a hand pump.

I'd even stopped to help harvest the sticky-rice crop - cutting off shoots with a razor-sharp sickle - to the amusement of the £1-per-day casuals who did this every year. Then I took my proper place in the food-chain by paying cash for a farmer's lunch at a roadside shack.

Jack Barker travelled courtesy of the Tourist Authority of Thailand

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; www.thaiairways.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.britishairways.com), Eva Air (020-7380 8300; www.evaair.com) and Qantas (0845 774 7767; www.qantas.com) all fly non-stop to Bangkok from Heathrow. Reduce the impact on the environment by buying an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Bangkok, in economy class, is about £21. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

STAYING THERE

Mutmee Guest House, Nong Khai (00 66 42 460 717; www.mutmee.net) is a friendly place to stay and an excellent source of information and maps. Doubles start at 150 baht (£2.20) room only. Rental of step-through scooters costs 210 baht (£3) per day, without insurance, from the stand just outside. Mekhong Guest House, Bung Khan (00 66 42 491 341). Doubles from 280 baht (£4). Sang Deng Hotel, Prasat Road, Udon Thani (00 66 42 344 131). Doubles from 350 baht (£5). Rim Kong Guest House, Chiang Khan (00 66 42 821 125). Doubles from 280 baht (£4).

WHEN TO GO

The best time to tour the north of Thailand is through the British winter, when the weather is warm and dry.

MORE INFORMATION

Tourist Authority of Thailand: 09063 640 666 (60p per minute; www.tourismthailand.co.uk). Good maps of Thailand in Roman script are hard to find: the best, though eight years old, is published by Rough Guides on usefully durable polythene.

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