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.

Gadling gear review – Motorola Motozine ZN5 mobile phone

It isn’t often that we’ll cover a mobile phone here on Gadling – it takes a special kind of phone to stand out amongst the 100’s of phones released every month.

The Motorola ZN5 is such a phone – on the outside, this phone may look fairly basic (and very Motorola-like), but it is the hardware on the inside that makes this phone special.

The basics of the phone are fairly standard – it is a quadband GSM phone with a single 2.4″ high resolution screen. The phone also features an FM radio, stereo Bluetooth audio and voice dialing.

So far, still a pretty normal phone. But once you turn the phone over, you’ll notice it has a larger than normal bulge for its camera – the reason for this is that the Motorola ZN5 offers a 5 megapixel auto-focus camera with a real flash.
Motorola teamed up with Kodak to offer the optics in ZN5, and the result is actually quite stunning. In addition to this, the phone has built in WiFi and the necessary software to take advantage of this.

So – how well does this all perform? The ZN5 suffers from the same issues as most Motorola devices; a fairly boring and unintuitive interface. It isn’t a bad interface, it just feels like it is in serious need of an update. Menus are at least fairly well laid out, and most portions can be customized.

One of the neatest parts of the interface on the ZN5 is its “ModeShift keypad”. This technology is unique to Motorola, and allows the keypad to change when you slide the lens cover open. As soon as you open the cover, the phone switches to camera mode, and the keypad changes to a camera keypad. This sounds a little more complicated than it is, in essence, it means the backlight on the keypad lights up only the camera portions you need when you are making photos.

That keypad itself is surprisingly good – it is made out of a single piece of plastic, with raised portions at the numbers. The round “D-pad” control is sadly not a scrolling wheel, which does seem rather odd.

The camera is of course the biggest selling point on the ZN5, and I have included several examples of photos made with the ZN5 in the gallery attached below. Images don’t look bad – but they are not exactly on par with what you’d expect from a “real” 5 Megapixel digital camera.

Once you have made photos, you can send them as an MMS message (picture message), an email, or through the Kodak GalleryLink feature directly to an online Kodak photo gallery. This upload system works flawlessly. If you’d rather send your photos somewhere else, you can configure the Shozu photo sharing application.

In addition to wireless sharing, the ZN5 also comes with a special version of the Kodak EasyShare software, which lets you transfer photos from the camera to your computer. Photos can even be viewed on a TV using the included AV output cable.

And finally, the camera is compatible with the Kodak line of all-in-one printers (if they have Bluetooth added).

This means this mobile phone has 6 different ways to offload or share photos. Photos can be shot using a variety of image filters: panorama, grayscale, sepia, negative, reddish, greenish and blueish.

The big question is of course who the target audience is for this device – I’d say it is primarily for people not interested in the latest and greatest smartphone. Don’t forget that most smartphones on the market at the moment still lack anything remotely close to a good camera. Even the super popular Apple iPhone is stuck with a horrible 2 megapixel camera with no flash and no auto-focus.

Thankfully (for Motorola), there are still plenty of people who are looking for just a phone. The phone is incredibly easy to use, and despite its dated interface, it still excels at being just a phone.

The basics are all there, but users who need a quite a big more than the basics won’t be disappointed. The ZN5 stores a MicroSD memory card, and can be expanded to 4GB (this is the limit Motorola mentions, I was able to use an 8GB card without any problems).

The phone has an integrated email client, web/wap browser, media player (with stereo Bluetooth support), alarm, calculator, calendar, world clock, file manager and several games.

On the outside of the ZN5 is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack and a MicroUSB connector for charging and PC connectivity, which is quickly becoming the new standard on many mobile phones.

Battery life is what you’d expect from a non-smartphone; very good. The manufacturer states 5 hours talk time and 8 days standby. Of course, using the camera a lot will quickly drain the battery, but even after a bunch of photos, the ZN5 kept going for several days.

The Motorola ZN5 can be purchased in 2 ways – the cheapest way is through T-Mobile. This mobile operator sells the phone for $0 – but only when you sign up for a 2 year qualifying voice contract.

If you’d rather not sign a contract, then you can purchase one directly from Motorola for just $279, an insanely low price for such a well equipped phone.

My conclusion is simple – this is a very well performing phone. It lacks 3G, but makes up for that by including WiFi. At $0 on T-Mobile, it is one of their best budget friendly phones. The camera performs better than any cameraphone in this price category. The hardware is well designed and despite the boring interface, it is easy to use and is equipped with a ton of handy features.

(In the gallery, click the “hi-res” button to see the full size version of these photos.