AN INTERVIEW WITH WOMEN'S WEEKLY
What ignited your love for riding, and how long have you been riding? We understand that you started with dirtbiking – tell us a little about your journey!
When I was in college, a hallmate rode his motorcycle into campus, and while the other girls wanted to try out the pillion seat, all I could think of was, 'I want to be on that throttle!' Desire outlived parental disapproval, and I finally pocketed my first bike license in 2008. I've never been without a motorcycle since.
Dirtbiking was a natural progression. While I was still taking my license, a friend introduced me to the sport by strapping me down pillion across an offroad trail of fallen logs, sandpits and mudpools. I came out of that with a face (and underwear!) full of mud, as well as one hell of a backache, but grinning madly for hours to follow. My first motorcycle was an ancient 200cc beast of a scrambler with knobby offroad tyres; the worst sort of first-motorcycle that you'd want your mom to discover in the carpark. It was way too tall for me and I fell off in all kinds of bizarre, awkward situations - at traffic lights, in parking lots, on the sidewalk - but we had so much fun together and I learnt a great deal from wrestling that bike through crazy terrain.
The local dirtbiking community at that time was small but highly connected and very friendly, so I had no shortage of teachers and comrades-in-mud. Many of those whom I started out riding with remain among my closest friends today. From mucking around in little jungle trails, I started riding further across the causeway in KL and Kuala Lipis with Malaysian bikers, and also Phnom Penh and Siam Riep in Cambodia. With a couple of other girls, I was a regular participant in Enduro Cross-Country races in Malaysia, organised by the folks from the Motorcycle Sports and Safety Club Singapore (MSSC).
In 2009 a terribly busted knee and the subsequent surgeries forced me to hang up my dirtbiking gear - but then someone said, "I think you'd be crazy to ride a 125cc bike from here to Thailand"... I swapped my racing scramblers for a slightly different, more roadworthy sort of motorcycle - one that was kinder on the backside, recuperating limbs and the wallet, although arguably not any less precarious or exciting! In September 2009 I rode my 125cc Derbi Terra Adventure motorcycle from Singapore to Hat Yai, Thailand - and that was the start of a whole new sort of adventures.
What gives you that adrenaline rush? Riding can be really dangerous, so why do you do it?
I have no doubt that every day that I throw my leg over the saddle is a day I may not return home. In that lies a gripping simplicity to riding that keeps it wildly attractive. Everything I love about life is solidified in the twist of the throttle! Longer riding adventures are all about the freedom, unpredictability and rough-tough spontaneity of chasing down new horizons; above all, a sense of an overwhelmingly larger world. Yes, motorcycling is dangerous, but then again, so is being at home with a faulty gas stove. It's a fair trade-off. Ironically, I've always found the safest place in the world to be the inside of my helmet. No matter what horrors the day can dish out, I pull my helmet on and then it's just me, my bike and wherever I choose to point my handlebars; it’s a plain and easy dependency. The road is long and life is short; might as well get down to living!
We hear that you motorbike cross-country. Where have you travelled to on your motorcycle? How is it different from riding in Singapore? How often are your trips, and who do you travel with?
Truth be told, plying Singapore's roads is an adventure in itself, what with insane taxi drivers, runaway Ferraris and random jaywalkers - although, there's always time for the long way home if I feel like it. Jokes aside, roadtrips are a far cry from the humdrum of daily commute! Explorations by motorcycle are awesome because you can really see the land, meet the people and get to some great spots off the beaten path that no tour agent or guidebook will take you. It's the best way to scratch a chronic wanderer's itch!
Riding solo has its own pleasures, but having company along the way is so much fun. The fraternity of the road doesn't discriminate - I'm happy to ride with all sorts, even strangers that I meet along the way, or through online forums. There are always interesting lessons to be had with each new traveller.
Short adventures include weekend jaunts to camping spots in Malaysia, like Endau Rompin, Mount Ophir or Cameron Highlands - these happen a couple of times each month, usually spontaneously with minimal planning. Mid-range rides into Thailand (Krabi, Phuket or thereabouts) typically take up to five days at a stretch, and we do this about 3 or 4 times a year. On top of that I plan for a month-long expedition every year (my bosses have been very kind so far!) - and the last one was pretty major! "Project Ride North 2011" was 3 years in the dreaming and 6 months in the planning: for 20 days in Dec 2011, myself and 3 other bikers lived out of our motorcycle panniers, tracing a winding, varied road across the face of Thailand, passing through Chiang Mai and hitting the borders of Myanmar.
What are the challenges of riding cross country? What are your considerations when deciding where to go?
Terrains can get thorny when exploring rural areas, and you best be confident in the health and sturdiness of your bike - or at least travel with people whom you KNOW won't leave you lying face-down in the dust! Once we rode across a shallow river to get to a rural Karen village in Thailand, and I lost control of my bike right where a cow just left a poocake. I was lucky to be with friends who dived right into that river for the rescue!
Dirtbiking experience certainly helps, but your choice of motorcycle also matters. A friend on a sportsbike struggled and cussed for 30min down a rutted, mud-packed slope, while the rest of us on taller dual-purpose bikes took only half that time to get across. Many other bikers thought he was mad for the attempt alone, and it was a real testament to his ridership and sheer stubbornness that both him and his bike survived a month in some of Thailand's most unforgiving routes! My friends and riding-betters like to remind me that it's not about the bike, it's about the rider.
Accurate maps are important, but it's not the end of the world if you can't navigate to save your life - an adventurous biker can safely get by with enough petrol for extended detours, indomitable optimism and a ready smile to trade with the locals for directions. I should know, I spend most of my time getting lost!
Keeping an open mind has become a personal rule of thumb - I rarely plot detailed routes or pre-book lodging, preferring instead to carry camping gear in case we pass through a particularly beautiful place to spend the night, or hear from locals on interesting new detours. While in Thailand, we befriended locals who suggested we tent it out at a military encampment on top of a mountain overlooking Myanmar territories - it turned out to be one hell of an experience, featuring gun-toting, non-English-speaking soldiers, frigid near-zero temperatures, home-brewed strawberry whisky and fireside execution tales from Chinese immigrants.
That's the magic of a two-wheeled journey - familiar routes will always gift you with fresh and unexpected stories to take home.
There is a dream I'm still working to realise: to ride my motorcycle around the world and chronicle it through photographs, writings and drawings. Before I get old!
You mentioned that you have a knee injury caused by riding. What happened? Did you consider switching to four wheels after the incident? Did the injury change any of your mindsets about riding?
Sometimes I fancy myself a poster kid for the perils of life on two wheels. A few months into my first motorcycling license, I was involved in a hit-and-run that left me with broken fingers, shoulder and a thigh riddled with stone and metal fragments. To the combined horror of my parents and physiotherapist, I was back on a newer, faster scrambler within a year. Then in a 2010 dirtbike race in Kuala Lipis, Malaysia, I crashed out badly and tore the ACL ligament in my right knee. Even after reconstruction surgery my knee was never the same; it had a frustrating tendency to swell or buckle at critical moments. The doctor laid it down plainly enough - I should never race bikes again. I remember taking in the news with stonefaced clarity, then excusing myself to the back of the ward to cry.
I didn't sell my motorcycle, but for awhile I drove around in a beat-up little 660cc van while my injuries healed. I took the backseat out, threw in a sleeping pad and camping gear, and used it like a caravan while plotting bigger escapes. But who was i kidding? Shortly after I was weaned off the crutches, I traded the van in for a brand new motorcycle, and took that 125cc on my first long ride to Thailand even before the engine was done being run-in.
But hospital time HAS left its indelible marks. These days I keep my personal accident insurance up to date, and I ride the tarmac like a huge chickenshit. I hardly weave between cars (although my friends will swear that the real bike lanes ARE the dotted line dividers, and get very frustrated because i always end up slowest in the pack) and even on the hottest days i never get on the saddle without a full-face helmet. To make up for the busted ligament, I train my quadriceps with regular exercise, and now I can hike, run and climb the way I wasn't able to a year ago. I'm not ruling out getting back on a dirtbike, but for now I'm just happy to cruise across countries on more sedate motorcycles. I guess age and experience has taught me that one reckless move can rob me of a lifetime of my one big love - biking.
Motorbiking is a predominantly male hobby. Do you ever find yourself being discriminated against by male riders? If so, what do they say or do? How do you respond?
Most times I'm the only female rider in the pack, but it helps that I'm not your run-of-the-mill dainty girl. The boys treat me as one of them - I've been conferred an "honorary dick", as they so elegantly put it. I'm glad for that, especially when we're up to our eyeballs in machine grease laughing at somebody's badly-timed dirty joke, or prancing half naked around a campfire, trying to dry our underwear. It's so much more fun being in the thick of the action rather than watching from the sidelines like a female accessory.
So far I've been met with nothing but friendliness or respectful curiosity from fellow bikers, gender aside - thankfully!