Dr. Frazier: Three Wheels to Terror

February 3, 2012
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

I yelled  Dont stop! I would rather be shot that taken captive into the jungles.
During his recent travels in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, our globe trekker upgraded to three wheels with a sidecar constructed from a 1200cc Yamaha V-Max.
How the Yamaha V-Max motorcycle got into Thailand was a mystery  but the ownership papers indicated it was titled and registered between in 1990-1992.

“Don’t stop! Whatever you do Joe, don’t stop!”

I was yelling these words at the sidecar driver, Joe Sauerborn. We were deep into the area known as the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia where the countries of Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Thailand meet. It was called golden for the money that heroin once produced in the area, and later for the gold that came from methamphetamines manufactured in Burma and transported into mainland Thailand and the rest of the world.

It was a dangerous area. Road blocks and checkpoints were manned by unsmiling uniformed men with serious looking guns. Just a week before police seized 40,000 methamphetamine pills being transported over our route. Twelve drug gangs were reportedly ramping up for more transporting, often using people taken captive as human mules to carry the illicit drugs across the border from Burma and deep into Thailand. A few weeks earlier, 13 crew members of a cargo ship operating on the Mekong River were killed by a purported drug trafficking gang.

Joe Sauerborn operates a well-known and respected motorcycle rental and repair business in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He uses sidecars as his main means for pick-up and drop-off of motorcycles and parts, building his sidecar haulers from strange imported motorcycles and bits he manufacturers. Needing to make a test run to the far north of Thailand, he offered me a ride in his new sidecar; one he had recently finished modifying after months of work. The hook for me was when he said, “It will be a real adventure with some risk because of the drug problems in the area, and also because I’ll be testing the new sidecar.”

The sidecar outfit was an older sidecar body attached to a 1990-1992 Yamaha 1200cc V-Max with a highly modified leading link front end and numerous suspension and attachment changes. Sauerborn knew nearly all of the previous eight owners of this rarely imported Yamaha motorcycle, and said they had treated it well over the previous life of 40,000 miles. The sidecar body, or “chair,” had been on four of Sauerborn’s earlier sidecar outfits, but needed some major modifications to fit it to the 130-140 horsepower V-Max.

The inside of the sidecar  or chair  was just large enough for my 6 2 frame  but left little room to move around.
The inside of the sidecar, or chair, was just large enough for my 6’2” frame, but left little room to move around.

Sauerborn had cajoled me into previous tests and each had proven to be extreme adventures, albeit on three wheels instead of two. I accepted his offer to once again push my personal adventure envelope by trusting another to pilot me through danger.

My two biggest fears have long been snakes and sharks. North Thailand, where we were going, had some mean, nasty and monster-like snakes. Although there were no man-eating sharks in the jungle, the drug gangs and gun-toting drug runners were close to sharks in the natural order of survival. I had heard tall tales over the years of motorcyclists being shot or taken captive around the world by unfriendly natives. The idea of this happening to me was beyond unpleasant.

Sauerborn and I carried no weapons, our defenses limited to our well-honed wits garnered from years of solo motorcycle travel. In the end it was a choice: no risk, no reward – the reward being another successful adventure involving a motorcycle. However, I didn’t want to later be writing a true story of how either one of us had been captured, robbed and made into boy-toys by guerrillas or drug runners.

Most motorcycles in Thailand were small  and the V-Max could easily leave them behind at stop lights but could not split lanes or easily move to the head of the line.
Most motorcycles in Thailand are small and the V-Max could easily leave them behind at stop lights. But the sidecar couldn’t split lanes or easily move to the head of the line.

Our first hour was one of mixed traffic. While driving out of the city of Chiang Mai we struggled with traffic congestion, the sidecar not being able to split lanes like the thousands of small motorcycles around us. At stop lights the little motorcycles would thread their way through stopped traffic to the front of the line while Sauerborn and I had to halt when there wasn’t enough space on either side of the idling cars. Once the lights turned green the tremendous power from the V-Max allowed us to weave and shift lanes fast enough to reach the head of the pack.

One of the hardest things I did as the passenger was accept that there was nothing I could do if an accident were to happen. With no brakes, no throttle and my legs pinned at the knees, if anything were to cause an accident Fate was in absolute control. I imagined coming to a sudden stop, like on the back of a truck or car, and my upper body being thrown forward while breaking both legs at the knees. The other scenario was a blow-out or flat tire at speed, resulting in the sidecar flipping with me either in or out. These were gruesome thoughts difficult to overcome as we hit speeds in excess of 100 mph when passing cars, trucks, buses and other motorcycles.

I was stressed out after the first hour, my jaw muscles sore from clinching my teeth. I begged Sauerborn to stop for gas. He looked at me and smiled, saying: “We’ve plenty enough to go all day.” I then remembered that he had constructed a second gas tank underneath the sidecar that fed the main tank with an electric pump. I changed tactics and told him I needed to stop for the toilet. That worked and I was able to quit hyperventilating for 10 minutes as he topped off the gas tank.

Sauerborn took a shortcut around a closed section of pavement  a jungle track.
Sauerborn took a shortcut around a closed section of pavement, a jungle track.
No more jungle walking for me.  Any snakes would have to get to me from outside the metal sidecar body.
No more jungle walking for me.  Any snakes would have to get to me from outside the metal sidecar body.

Back on the road we arrived at a section that Sauerborn knew we could take as a shortcut through the dense jungle. I got out of the sidecar to make it easier for him to manhandle the heavy sidecar outfit. After taking a few pictures of him hard at work through the trees and bushes, I realized I was standing in the jungle – home of snakes like the King Cobra. That was the end of my jungle picture-taking as I chose to take my chances with the snakes while sitting inside the metal sidecar body versus walking through the bush.

Sauerborn wanted to test his design work a bit more, so after the jungle ride we veered off the friendly pavement and onto the bumpy dirt. Then it was over a rickety wooden bridge wide enough for only one car, or one sidecar. Next it was back onto more dirt.

As we sped over one section of dirt I saw a large snake slither off the road and into the elephant grass. I yelled at Sauerborn to move away from the grass on the side of the road and to drive more in the middle. He laughed and said, “That one was a small one. I’ve seen bigger.” If a six to eight-foot-long cobra was small, than what was big?

Between playing chicken with oncoming vehicles on board bridges and the snakes, I was reaching my adventure limit. I convinced Sauerborn better adventure could be had on paved roads, and the sales pitch included my saying I would take better photographs when not bouncing around inside the body of the hack.

Once back on the pavement Sauerborn wanted to test his tire choice and set-up. This meant he would power through curves, pushing the tires to their limit of traction while using the powerful V-Max engine to work a slide or near slide. All I could do was white knuckle it and scream as I felt the tires letting go.

I convinced Sauerborn that a break was in order  that crossing over into the dark world of Myanmar  Burma  was safer  for me  than more riding.
I took a break from riding in the belief that crossing into the dark world of Myanmar (Burma) was safer than more riding.

We stopped for a meal in the border town of Mai Sai. I urged Sauerborn to take a break, park the sidecar and walk into the neighboring town of Tachilek, in Burma, for some shopping. He had been there many times and knew the touts would be on us like simple tourists, but agreed when I told him there was a rumored cheap knock-off motorcycle clothing shop just inside Burma.

The touts were on us like flies to fresh cow dung as we walked through the myriad of stalls selling everything from fake Rolex watches to fake designer jeans. I passed on offers for short time female companionship, cigarettes, adult DVDs and suspect male enhancement pills. It was an interesting shopping experience, but I went away thankful only for the break in my adventure riding that day.

Anxious to get back on the road, Sauerborn suggested we try some more rough roads before dark. We got lucky by doing so. A rattling he heard more than felt was coming from the front fender hitting the fender mount. While I rested on the solid earth of a sidewalk, he re-attached the fender with a spare bolt. Another handling problem coupled with noise found the strut between the sidecar (where I was sitting) and the motorcycle frame had worked loose and also needed some attention. After another stop I came out of a restroom to find Sauerborn with the tool box out again, making adjustments to items that had broken or come loose.

After a quiet evening on a Chiang Khong hotel balcony overlooking the Mekong River and the smoldering cooking fires across the border in Laos, we decided to make the run back to Chiang Mai in one jump while stopping only for gas. My return trip was terror-less, the day before having pushed my fear factor to the far side of the adventure meter. I had become adjusted to the terror.

A boat similar to these on the Mekong River had been mysteriously attacked resulting in nearly 20 dead just days before we stopped here.  The dangers associated with drugs reminded us we were away from the security of areas outside the Golden Triangle.
A boat similar to these on the Mekong River had been mysteriously attacked just days before we stopped here.

Being a passenger in a sidecar can push an alpha male motorcycle rider to his limits. The experience of having zero control while sitting in a box that’s akin to a coffin will turn a barking dog into a whimpering puppy. Time and old age have diminished my memory of previous sidecar adventures. Less than a year earlier, Sauerborn had taken me on a wild sidecar adventure, but my recollection of those risks and stress had dimmed. That trek should have warned me far away from my more recent journey, which I aptly named Three Wheels to Terror. But of course, it didn’t. Maybe my thirst for motorcycle adventure automatically erased my memory bank, the opportunity for adventure on three wheels just too great a proposal to pass up.