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…


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.

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.

“Bizarre Foods” on the Travel Channel: Asia potpourri

Location: Tokyo and Kobe Japan; Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand; and Penang, Malaysia. (This episode was a repeat of a previous season. I missed this one the first time, so I was happy to catch it.)

Episode Rating: 4 Sheep Testicles (out of 4) using Aaron’s system that certainly works well for this episode–if you trade sheep for pig.

Summary: After watching this episode, it might seem like there is nothing but bizarre food in Asia. I can attest that the eating is among the finest. I’ve been to all three countries and promise there’s food to suit most people’s palate. Being an adventurous eater helps. What Andrew Zimmern honed in on is foods that are thought to give power. Feeling a bit blah? There’s nothing like some frog meat.

In Japan, frog sashimi is a real health pick me up. Sashimi is usually raw seafood–unless it’s frog. Chase it down with some lizard sake and you’re good to go. The lizard was leaning out of the glass like a garnish one might see at a Halloween party. Even more macabre, but maybe that’s just me, is eating the frog’s beating heart. Zimmern proclaimed it “not bad…not a lot of flavor.” To eat a beating heart, I’d need a bit more than “not bad.” See the YouTube video for the full effect.

Suppon, a soft-shelled turtle has been eaten in Japan for 450 years. In Japan, turtle is mega power food. It gives men extra get up and go, if you know what I mean. For women, it’s supposed to do wonders for the skin. The soup version looked tasty, if one ignored the detail of Zimmern gnawing on the turtle leg. Watching the turtle bleed beforehand, though, was a big ick. Zimmern downed some turtle blood mixed with rice wine before he dug into the soup. I’d like my rice wine plain, thank you.

Another bizarre dish Zimmern tackled was fugu, poisonous blowfish. I’d pass on it. First of all, 100 people a year die from eating fugu when it’s not prepared correctly. Secondly, even when it’s prepared correctly, there’s enough poison in it to make your mouth numb. See Matthew’s post that gives more specifics.

The detail about Kobe beef was interesting–those are some happy cows, and I got a kick out of the yakitori contest when Zimmern and a Japanese pal had dueling moments of eating chicken part skewers. Evidently, not all chicken parts are tasty. “I’d rather be tied naked to an ant hill than eat the rest of this,” Zimmern declared.

Once Zimmern left Japan for Thailand, it was market browsing past ant larvae, grubs, beetles, grilled frog on a stick and a host of other taste treats. I have eaten bird’s nest soup, however, and thought it not bad–for swallow nests. Zimmern went shopping and pointed out that swallows’ nests cost up to $1,000 for a package of 12 of the finest.

Outside Chiang Mai, Zimmern ate street food which were hits and misses. One miss was some sort of red sausage that was a mix of pork and organ meats. A real gag with that one. He also downed spirulina, a drink made from live algae that’s supposedly one of the healthiest foods. It’s gotta be good for you. It’s green. Plus, he said it smelled like the bottom of an aquarium. You can get it in pill form if you want.

Although visiting a hill tribe in Thailand is a wonderful experience, the bat eating is something I’d do without. Those fruit bats, when stir fried, look like fruit bats stir fried–perfect for that Halloween party with the lizard sake chaser.

When Zimmern hit Penang, an island of Malaysia, I had flashbacks to some awesome meals. Sambal, the sauce made from shrimp paste is good–I wouldn’t eat buckets of it, but it’s good. Zimmern ate the fiery version and in between fanning his hands in front of his face, asked, “Is their steam coming out of my ears?” Penang is also a wonderful place to spend time. One thing I appreciated about this segment was the inclusion of Indian food. Indian food in Malaysia (and Singapore) is superb. I ate Indian food in Georgetown myself.

The food that Zimmern spit out was durian, the smelliest fruit on earth. It’s so smelly it’s not allowed on public transportation in Malaysia or Singapore.

Although this episode was a repeat, it was a good one for a trip around high points of places I’ve been. Next week, Zimmern’s back with a new episode. Stay tuned for India.

For Gadling recaps of this season:

Elephants that paint

On Anderson Cooper 360° last week, there was a brief video of a elephant painting a picture in Thailand as part of a show geared towards tourists. I wonder if this is a new trick? When I was in Chiang Mai a few years back, we went to Mae Taeng Elephant Park on a tour that included elephant, ox-cart and raft rides. I don’t recall the painting demo. I do recall one elephant putting a foot on a tourist who was face down on the ground and thought, “That’s brave.” The painting looks quite tame in comparison. This video was shot at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, also near Chiang Mai.

Photo of the Day (03.18.08)

In my travels, I’ve discovered something about small towns — they each have something that is uniquely theirs, something they’re know for, a claim to fame if you will. In the town of Vegreville, Alberta, for instance, it’s the giant easter egg in the center of town that commemorates the Ukranian heritage. In the town of Hoi An, Vietnam, it’s the abundance of tailor shops, each ready to make you a custom suit at a bargain rate. And in Borsang, Thailand, it’s the handmade umbrellas that are their claim to fame. In fact, the town even holds an annual umbrella festival each year in January. Gadling reader Lady Expat was there, and luckily for us, she took this excellent photo.

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That Market in Thailand That the Train Moves Through

The market in Justin’s post that the train moves through, literally–you really need to see it to understand the intricacies of the situation–could be in Bangkok. Or it could be near Bangkok. Bangkok is a city after all that sprawls and sprawls and sprawls.

I’ve taken a train to Bangkok twice, both times from Chiang Mai. Once it was the night train where we passed into Bangkok early in the morning. Along the tracks, even before the sun was barely up, life was bustling. There is a section that looks like the one in the video, although, I don’t think it’s the same track. The second train I took was the day train and a chance to see how the countryside gradually becomes dense with buildings and people.

Richard Barrow on his Web site, Richard Barrow: Promoting Thai Culture and Life to the World, details a train trip that sounds like it passes through the very market in the video. It sure looks like it to me. Plus, his description in the post “Market on the Railway Tracks” sounds identical. Here’s the description. Go to the post for more.

I knew that during the last 100 metres or so the train would pass through a market. Literally. I know it sounds strange but this was my planned highlight of the trip. I wanted to get pictures of the market stallholders pulling back their produce as we passed through the market. “

Plus, look at the picture. Look at the first shot of the video. See? According to him, this market is along the Maeklong Railway at the outskirts of Maeklong. His post also explains how you can take this train trip to see the market for yourself and provides other photos. If you want info about Thailand, his blog is a wonderful mix of details.