My wife shames me at every turn. I’ve spent the past 30 years carousing with my mates, having fun at INFO MOTO and riding the wheels off everything I can get my hands on. Meanwhile, she’s been working in various parts of South-East Asia teaching English to orphans and the otherwise disadvantaged. I’ve been a somewhat reluctant participant, in that the backlog of jobs in the Spanner workshop is now at critical peak, and my time is precious…
We had a year in Vietnam together prior to the pandemic where she taught and I adventured but she’s recently had almost a year in Thailand teaching in homes for kids with HIV or no parents and I haven’t been much help. Her most recent posting has been the most challenging in that it’s in a place called Yasathon in the far north-east of Thailand where she’s the only one for probably hundreds of kilometers who speaks English.
The home is called Baan (means ‘house’) Home Hug (self-explanatory) and it caters for kids who have HIV from their usually deceased mother, kids with no parents, kids who have been abandoned by their family or village, kids who have been the victims of sexual abuse, kids with ADHD and learning difficulties and kids with a combination of all these problems. It’s no holiday camp.
Baan Home Hug (BHH) was set up 35 years ago by a woman named Mae Thiew who had worked in the slums of Bangkok and had seen first-hand the problems of children and young adults who were HIV-positive mostly from birth. Discrimination was rife then and is still strong today both at a government and community level. Over 1000 children died at the home in the first 25 years and Mai Thiew had to bury many of them herself as the local grave-diggers feared they’d become infected if they came into contact with HIV-positive bodies.
An Australia-based social enterprise group, ‘Hands across the Water’ (Hands) partnered with BHH around 12 years ago and Mai Thiew finally had enough money for medicine as well as food. Since then, no children have died at the home. Hands was set up after the 2003 tsunami when the forensic pathologists who came from Australia and Britain to help identify bodies became aware of how many children had been orphaned by the event. Hands now supports, or significantly helps, many orphanages and homes in Thailand.
Out of the comfort zone
I agreed to spend the last month of Julia’s current teaching stint at BHH to provide some company and support but she’s the one with a masters degree in teaching English as a second language, not me, so I did wonder how I’d be filling in the time. Yasathon is about as far from a tourist town as you can get – it seems to be a service centre for a much larger agricultural area. Towns like it in Australia would perhaps be Bourke or Winton.
I spent the first day exploring the home compound and noted a handful of motorcycles in various states of disrepair. Hands has financed a couple of newish kingcab utes but only four of the staff of 18 can actually drive. The rest of them had been making use of two bikes, a Honda Dream Super Cub 110 and an imaginatively-named Suzuki Smash Junior 110. The Honda had developed a bad cough and splutter six months previously and had been parked at the back of the car shed where its tyres went down, the 30 cats living here had clawed its seat and it had started to become covered in rubbish.
The Suzuki wasn’t being used either because in had, over time, become increasingly difficult to start and wouldn’t idle. It had flat tyres as well and the cats had rioted on its seat. It was on its way to god – nobody at BHH knew anything about bike maintenance and, being 10km from Yasathon, nobody could bring themselves to push either of the bikes that far on the off chance they could be fixed. Perhaps here was an area where I could be useful.
Inspecting the Honda involved shooing cats and digging it out of the rubbish pile but it looked reasonably straight. It had 33,000km on its odometer and that’s consistent with the arrival of the 110 in Thailand probably around 2010.
It actually started relatively easily and sounded fine until it got to normal operating temperature when it started to backfire and misbehave. This is symptomatic of insufficient exhaust valve clearance. The engine runs when it’s cold but as it heats up, whatever clearance there is disappears and the exhaust valve doesn’t close properly. It can be fatal if you keep riding the bike but this particular Dream was parked soon after the problem started so there was a good chance the valve and the valve seat were still going to seal properly once clearance had been re-established.
It also had all the usual indications of neglect including black oil, no adjustment left in the drive chain, rear brake shoes well past the wear limit and plenty of cosmetic ailments.
The Suzuki had a whopping 66,000km-plus reading on its odometer so it was easy to fear the worst. It was relatively straight as well but was possibly 12 to 14 years old. The flash version of this bike was the Revo which had an electric start and a front disc but this was the ‘Junior’ with just kick start and drum brakes.
It wouldn’t start but it had good compression and seemed very original. It shared the Honda’s obvious signs of neglect including a drive chain with about four inches of movement and no way of adjusting it out. The teeth on the rear sprocket were wafer-thin to boot suggesting every other bit of the running gear would be worn out as well.
BHH allegedly had a toolbox with some tools in it that may have been useful but the keeper of the toolbox key had gone on holidays the day before I arrived and wouldn’t be back until a few days before I was leaving. I worked out roughly what I thought I might need (presuming an engine strip-down wasn’t going to be required in which case I wasn’t going to buy the tools anyway) and proceeded to get the cheapest options possible. The total kit (ring/open-ended spanners, socket set to 13mm, screwdriver set, multi-grips, eight-inch shifter, WD40, cable ties and some nuts and bolts) came from a chain supermarket at a total of AUD$29.30.
I’d finally found a use for cheap tools. Nobody was probably ever going to use them again and they were too heavy to take back to Australia even if I wanted to. They had to last for two jobs. It didn’t matter so much that they were generally a loose fit and not that strong in that, mostly, I’d be working with 10, 12 and 14mm nuts and bolts. The shifter was for the axle bolts and the multi-grips were for the tappet covers on the Honda – I’ve been there before with this engine.
Buying the tools was relatively easy as they were on a rack in a supermarket with the prices on them. From here on, the language barrier became a real issue. I’d decided in Vietnam that I could either learn the language or become a master mimer – communicating only in signs. I chose the latter and got to be pretty good at it: there isn’t a country in the world where I can’t order two beers. As what you want becomes more complex, miming loses some of its appeal. As an example, try to mime ‘oil filter’.
Nobody in Yasathon speaks English. I wanted to find a bike wrecker and you’d think there’d be a few in a country which has prospered for so long on two wheels but nobody understood what I wanted and I was reduced in the end to driving around town in the Hands truck doing my own scouting. I finally found one but couldn’t get past the guard dogs and the guard who looked like he thought I was from the CIA or the drug squad. A quick scan of the rows of bikes didn’t indicate any Dreams or Smashes, either.
Defeated, I approached the most likely bike parts place in the main drag and mimed what I wanted for the first job off the rank: the Suzuki. I didn’t ask about prices but was surprised they had just about everything I wanted: oil filter, air filter, Castrol Activ 4T, two sets of brake pads, a DID chain, a sprocket set and, finally a spark plug. Just on the off-chance, I also asked if they had a seat. Yes they did: new, in a box, at the cost of AUD$8.00. The whole parts supply came to a total of AUD$32.00. I suddenly realized I didn’t need a wrecker. How much cheaper could a seat be than eight bucks?
I knew nothing of the provenance of the Suzuki but the air filter was an original Suzuki part and could conceivably have been on the bike when it was first purchased. It was blocked solid and it looked like a previous mechanical wizard had richened up the fuel mixture to keep the engine running as an alternative to forking out the $3.00 for a replacement filter. Just the new filter alone got the bike running again and I was able to retune the carb to get it to idle properly: set the idle screw, turn the air screw out until the engine wouldn’t increase its revs any more, reduce the revs at the idle screw and repeat the process until the idle was perfect.
A quick blat down the concrete road outside the home warmed the oil up enough to change it and the filter which was in the same condition as the air filter. It’s astounding that you can get 66,000km from an engine which has had this little maintenance.
I reset the valve clearances on a cold engine the next day, replaced the rear brake pads (fronts were fine, indicating a heavy reliance on ‘rear brake theory’ among Thai riders) then swapped out the chain and sprockets before taking it for a gallop. I don’t think it could have been running better when it was new.
The Honda parts were equally as inexpensive although, sadly, I couldn’t get new leg shields to replace the weathered ones on the original. It’s a pity as the bike would have looked a million dollars afterwards.
As I’d suspected, there was no clearance in the exhaust valve and resetting it got the engine running again without backfiring when it was warm. Overall, the Dream was in better condition but benefitted from new drive gear and brake pads. Again, the front pads were fine.
There was a derelict 100 Dream on the property which provided plenty of spares including a seat without tears, new levers, plenty of missing screws, bolts and nuts and a rust-free Dream logo to go under the headlight. All this was set off with a new shopping basket on the front rack.
Aesthetics are important on shared bikes like this. If the bike looks good, it will be treated with more respect and probably last longer. Once they’re neglected, nobody worries about one more scratch, one more dint or what the cats are doing to the seats at night.
Okay, you’re being pursued but you’ve stumbled out of the jungle and you’ve found two bikes, a Dream and a Smash Junior, on which to make your escape and provide you with transport in the brave new world. Which one do you take?
Suzuki had the advantage of buying an existing Honda Cub engine, pulling it to pieces and working out how to make it better. It did a good job, too. The Smash engine produces 7.2kW compared with the Honda’s 6kW and, at 92kg, it’s seven kilograms lighter. It has easier servicing as well with a conventional replacement paper filter and easy-access tappet covers. It walks away from the Honda in a straight line partly because of its aggressive Mikuni VM18 carb even though both bikes share a four-speed, auto-clutch gearbox. It’s actually a hoot to ride: sprightly and responsive.
What might get you thinking, though, is the Honda’s oil filter is a metal mesh arrangement that can be washed and reused. Its air filter is reusable foam soaked in oil. If you’re prepared to get your hands dirty, you might never need to go to a Honda service agent again while the Smash rider will be reduced to wandering the wasteland searching for parts.
If you want to have fun, take the Suzuki. If you want to outlive the zombies, pick the Honda.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch
When I started working on the bikes, two kids, Geng and B-Jam, immediately stepped up as potential apprentices. They were good, too, knowing instinctively which way nuts and bolts tighten and undo. One of them, Geng, took responsibility for pulling the front wheel off the Honda before we discovered there was as much meat left on the brake shoes as there was on the new ones. He was also responsible for reassembly when we discovered the brake lever was broken. B-Jam single-handedly disassembled the cowling on the wrecked Dream 100 and rescued a workable lever to replace it.
The work on the bikes drew a crowd so there was an audience when B-Jam kicked the Honda over and it fired for the first time in six months.
There are around 100 kids managed by BHH with lots of reasons to be emotionally damaged but it’s a great place for them to be. Mae Thiew has a strong commitment to education and all the young ones go to school each day and get additional help in the evenings. The English program Hands finances is an added bonus. Promising students are given financial assistance to progress to technical colleges and university and the home has many success stories. For more information on Hands Across the Water, visit handsacrossthewater.org.au
In a social environment where it would be so easy for kids like this to slip between the wide cracks, these children are happy and, hopefully, will end up being able to make the same choices as kids with more conventional backgrounds.
As for the bikes, I’ve given both a 5000km warranty and they’ll probably get 10,000km from them before more help is required. I might have to come back but I now know there are definitely worse things you can do with your time. Maybe the jobs in my workshop aren’t as important as I once thought they were…