South by Southeast: Motorcycle Thailand

Each year thousands of travelers head for Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, ground zero for jungle treks, cooking courses and plenty of shopping. But good as Chiang Mai can be, it’s the regions beyond the comfy confines of Thailand’s second-largest city where travelers will find real adventure, an undertaking best-tackled by motorbike.

Northern Thailand’s vast terrain remains one of the country’s last great undiscovered areas, dotted with remote hill tribe villages, breathtaking hilltop vistas and laid-back mountain retreats. The best way to explore this vast region is by motorcycle trekking, an increasingly popular activity for savvy travelers looking to get away from the crowds in Chiang Mai.

There are several reasons why renting a motorbike is the best way to explore Northern Thailand. Touring by motorbike allows you to explore the area at your own pace, unrestrained by the limits of bus schedules and tourist guidebooks – you’re free to “get lost” on your own private adventure. In addition, the region offers an ideal environment for riding: traffic is light and the weather from November to February is mild and dry, with daytime temperatures in the 70′s. Most importantly, motorbike riding in Thailand’s North affords travelers the sheer thrill of area’s curvy roads and gorgeous scenery.

Earlier this month, I decided to try out a motorcycle trek of my own. I would head out from the Northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, riding nearly 300 kilometers southwest towards the lazy mountain town of Pai. Prior to starting my trip, I had zero days of riding experience. Curious to see what happened? Read below for more…

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Is It Safe?
Perhaps the biggest concern for anyone considering a motorcycle “trek” in Southeast Asia is safety. We’ve all heard the horror stories of the friend who rented a motorbike on holiday and ended up with a broken arm or worse. These are all valid concerns, but undertaken responsibly, a motorbike trek can be just as safe as a ride in a car.

If you’ve never been on a bike before, take a day or two in a parking lot or a quiet street to get the hang of the acceleration and turning. Learn the rules of the road. If you’re coming from the U.S., keep in mind they drive on the left in Thailand, not on the right. Make sure to also do some research on the type of bike you should rent. I opted for the small but nimble Honda Click. At 125cc, it’s easy to control for beginners and comes with automatic transmission. Lastly, make sure to get a helmet.

Navigating
Before setting off on my motorbike trip, I grabbed myself a Northern Thailand road map made by Groovy Map from one of Chiang Mai’s many English-language bookstores. The map proved invaluable – not only did it outline roadside attractions like waterfalls, caves and hot springs in both English and Thai, it also listed the condition of the roads as well as ranking them for scenic attractiveness. It’s also worth checking out the extensive itinerary ideas over at Golden Triangle Rider. David Unkovich, who founded the site, provides detailed information on models of bike, destination ideas and how to handle problems along the way.

The Trip

As we departed Chiang Rai, my initial worries about controlling the bike quickly faded from memory. My bike proved easy to handle and maneuver and soon I was tooling around like a pro. My concern was soon replaced by the sheer thrill of riding a bike through the rugged scenery of Thailand, wind racing past my face, humming motor below.

As I quickly discovered, touring by motorbike is just as much about the ride itself as it is about the destination. For every real “attraction” we planned to visit along the way, we spent nearly as much time simply enjoying the ride – leaning into the turns, stopping for scenic photos and chatting with owners at tiny filling stations.

That’s not to say there were no highlights. Some of my favorite sights along the way are listed below. Remember, the real beauty of motorcycle trekking is you’re free to change your itinerary each day as you please. Make sure to throw in your own adventures along the way.

  • Route 1340 – this curvy strip of road, just south of the Myanmar border, was among the most rugged (and gorgeous) I traversed. Plan to be alone, just you and your bike, with nothing but towering limestone cliffs, tiny mountain villages and curvy swithbacks to keep you company.
  • Doi Ang Khang – known among locals as “Little Switzerland” Doi Ang Khang makes a nice day trip from points further south. Stop by to enjoy locally-made handicrafts, fresh organic produce and plenty of killer views.
  • Chiang Dao Caves – Northern Thialand’s vast limestone rock deposits are dotted with plenty of caves. Many cave complexes, like the one found near Chiang Dao, make for an intriguing visit. Make sure to take a tour of the cave’s vast interior by lamp light, including quirky rock formations and plenty of reclining Buddhas.
  • Pai – this once-sleepy Thai hill town is fast becoming a mini-Chiang Mai. After spending a few days racing around on bike, Pai makes for the perfect antidote. Spend a few days enjoying Pai’s plentiful outdoor activities including rafting, hiking and camping. Make sure to stop into town for top-notch Thai and Western cuisine and lots of gourmet coffee.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.