Friday, May 10, 2013

Motorcycling Northern Thailand

 

Update: the gps routes I have linked below have been altered slightly from the original ride. Just slight variation to a few km of days 2 and 3 to route anyone who uses them away from a bit of poor road surface and day 4 I have made a change to avoid the western ascent to Mt Doi Inthanon as that road was chopped up bad.

Northern Thailand is a not mentioned every day when people talk about great riding areas but I had been reading on forums the roads there were very good and indeed they turned out to be excellent.

Something I paid less attention to in my research is the north of Thailand gets quite hazy with smoke from burning off before the April/May rains arrive. I thought ok how bad can it be. Quite bad as it turns out, I have manipulated these photos a lot to try clean up the grey smoke haze.

I decided to rent a motorcycle from Chiang Mai and chose Tony’s Big Bikes. The rental process is smooth and fast and I was soon on my way. I picked out a Kawasaki ER6N for this ride, a model made in Thailand, and rented a helmet and jacket as well. Many of the helmets were looking a bit tired but I managed ok with the one I picked and was happy it had a tinted visor fitted. The jacket was a Thai clone of an Alpinestars air flow jacket and was ok but each day my t-shirts ended up soiled from it so perhaps the jacket was well overdue to be washed.

As with some scooter rental places in Asia, Tony’s will keep your passport as security in lieu of a credit card authorisation and provide you with a photocopy to show at hotels. This did not prove to be a issue for me on this trip but I mention it further for your information as I was asked for my passport a number of times including by police and I would have been more comfortable to have had it on me. When Tony’s asked did I want insurance I naturally said yes but later examination of paperwork seemed to suggest there was no insurance on the bike merely a small medical cover. There is a chain and lock provided and I made sure I fitted that every night. I had no problems but will investigate if the other rental shops have insurance next time.

Most of the route planning I did after reading the excellent Captain Slash blog and also posts to the Ride Asia forum or GT Rider. I decided to do a 4 day loop to first visit the roads around Nan then over to Chiang Rai on what is billed as the best road in Thailand then down to Mai Hong Son and back to Chiang Mai on the other half of the acclaimed Mai Hong Son loop road.

My route day one was short and easy since I was picking up the bike and shop opening hours are well past the time I am usually on the road. My first issue was the bike had very little fuel in it. Rather than adopt the standard fill up before returning Tony’s bikes come with what the last rider left which in my case was a couple of litres. So not a great start trying navigate in the busy morning traffic of the fairly large city that is Chiang Mai with next to no fuel. Still I found a petrol station soon and took the time to relax over a ice coffee before riding out of Chiang Mai.

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Petrol stations are all ‘full service’ still in Thailand.

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Not your everyday roadside building. Just stopped to adjust my bag, sorry about the power lines.

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Highway 118 heading north east from Chiang Mai.

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Highway 120 which had an excellent hilly section.

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Highway 1251 If I recall correctly.

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And above should be the 1091 to Nan. All good riding roads as you can see.

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The day had really started to get hot by the time I arrived at Nan so I was grateful to arrive at my hotel early and get under the shower to cool down and get into shorts, sandals etc. On tour once I arrive at a hotel and park the bike I do not get back on it unless I absolutely have to ride somewhere to get food – just nice to have that clean break from the riding gear until the next day. Setting out on foot once the sun had dropped a bit lower I was surprised to find not one single restaurant or cafe in any direction and so with hand gestures ask at the hotel counter where to get something to eat and was pointed to the south. I eventually found a large area of street food stalls and not being able to communicate just walked around until a woman cooking took pity on me and gestured her dish was noodles plus some green vegetable and some meat in clear gravy so I gave the universal OK sign and sat down on the near by plastic dining setting and followed the locals lead of putting some of the provided sliced chilli in to the dish which was then quite tasty. It was one of the great moments in this trip, sole tourist in the town eating with the locals. Total price less than $1.

Day Two my route was to do a small exploration of the roads to the east and north east parallel to the border with Laos before joining the 1048 highway to Chiang Rai – said to be the finest ride in Thailand.

First riding south I branched off onto the 1162 with the sun trying to shine through the heavy smoke.

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Some of the roads after this were in poor condition, lots of broken up tar and loose stones. My route after 1162 was 1243 – 1168 – 1225 and the 1257 which was terrible before joining the 1081 which was good in parts and the 1256 also good in parts. I was pulled up by a border police patrol on the 1257 but they laughed once I pulled off the helmet and said something which no doubt translated as “ah just a tourist”.

The small villages along the way were interesting with every daily activity taking place in the middle of the road however the rough roads and slow going started to wear thin and I would have to say the recommendations for riding this area seem to out of date with the condition of the roads. That said there was a lot of road work machinery in the area so it could be brilliant new surface by now. Also if I was on a road-trail or adventure bike with tyres and longer suspension travel more suiting the surface then it would be better.

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Some of the good bits above and below.

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On my first day I had noticed the ER slipping around a bit and put it down to the brand new tyres that had not been scrubbed in. Day two I was still getting a lot of movement with some front end drift and the rear stepping out despite riding very sedately. I wonder about the road surface and noticed the local cars cut the corners all the time to the point that the outside lane of the corner has seen little traffic so with the bike always sliding I figured maybe it was because the road was not swept clean by the cars and had layer of dust making it slippery. So I started to also cut the corners, something I never do and really hate seeing but doing so did help return some grip to me and let me enjoy the riding a little more – but I was still lacking grip and feeling the bike constantly moving about.

After the back roads of the Nan region I eventually hit the 1048, said to be by some the best ride in Thailand. I only have one photo that came out any good due to the smoke – but below, which I doubled back to take, sums up this road rather well. Yes it is good, but not the best IMO. (that is still to come)

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I liked Chiang Rai. Smaller than Chiang Mai and far less touristy, friendly and still offered convenience, nice places to stay, eat and drink. This was low season so it may well change but Chiang Mai at the same time was over flowing with backpackers, Russian couples and Chinese tour groups and the staff in shops, hotels, cafes and bars all had a certain weariness you normally only encounter in far bigger cities.

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Breakfast with a view Chiang Rai. The ER is parked just off screen to the right.

My route day three took me along road 1089 near the border with Burma but whilst having a few beers the night before I came to the conclusion that the slipping and sliding was actually from all the burning off and was a layer of ash on the road. It was just too slippery to be anything normal. It reminded me at times of the feeling of being on a very low traffic road where a fine layer of silt from trees had settled, except in this case it was an invisible layer.

So I decided to stick to main roads and cut across to the 108 via the 118 and 109. Which to my delight were still excellent riding roads. I was by now thinking there are no straight roads in Northern Thailand. The days start quite cool the first couple of hours. I had to put two t-shirts on under the mesh jacket to cut the wind and then mid morning to midday is mild. But after lunch heat builds and rises quickly to the mid 30’s and on the low 40’s by mid afternoon before quickly cooling from late afternoon on. I have never experienced heat that comes and goes quite as quick anywhere in the world. 

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Above, stretching the legs on the 118

The 108 is a main road between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai but it was not bad riding and anyway is the only option to get to the northern section of the Mae Hong Son loop which is the most famous riding road in the the whole Golden Triangle region.

The 1095 started out less than great with the road chopped up in many parts and with a fair amount of slow moving traffic. The road improved and the traffic thinned but the amount of smoke increased and in many places fires were burning close to the road leaving a film of ash and a very slippery road. My theory on the fires causing the slippery conditions was confirmed with this and when I saw signage actually warning slippery road ahead (in English for the tourists who do this loop trip from Chiang Mai). It was a fairly cautious ride south to the town of Mai Hong Son. I have plenty of dirt bike experience and riding unsealed roads does not bother me however these conditions offered less grip than a graded unsealed road and more like the unpredictable loose small pebble type of unsealed road where the bike is constantly stepping out so you can only ride near to upright. This pushed my arrival right into the fierce afternoon heat and I was very glad to get off the bike and wash the smoke and perspiration away.

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Riding Northern Thailand is so easy with many coffee shops at petrol stations and by the road that have very reasonable priced food and drinks and free wi-fi.

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Apologies for the poor photos. I have an old model iPhone with all the limitations of it’s camera and I had left it in HDR mode to try get photos to cut through the smoke haze but ended up with some shots a bit blurred. (but the smoke in the photo’s is nothing like how much there was in real life so still a success) Mai Hong Son was small and very friendly. I will get a better phone (camera) soon, promise or even take a proper camera with me (maybe… I travel as light as possible)

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Leaving Mai Hong Son on day four my thoughts were that this loop was a bit over rated for motorcycle riding however I soon changed my mind. The road improves and improves and then turns into a absolute amazing piece of tar. I was a little hesitant thinking well this is mighty fine stuff but it will surely not last long – but in fact it goes on and on. As usual the best roads seem elusive to capture in a photo but imagine this sort of stuff below just never ending.

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It was an amazing ride, just beautiful.

After this I had plotted a route for day 4 over Mt Inthanon and this was a bit of a challenge as the road up from the west was in very bad shape. However down the other side was excellent. Sorry no photos as I broke my rule about stopping when I saw fuel and got the the top of the mountain and realised there was no services and I was low on fuel and low on energy so I just cruised down towards Chiang Mai for a late rest break before tackling the traffic jams on the long ride back into the city.

Always take a break and refuel when the opportunity first presents itself.

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Above - doing it rough on a morning coffee break riding the Mai Hong Son loop.

The Kawasaki ER6N was a great bike for this ride. Light and nimble and comfortable. A heavier machine may have been a lot of work on the slippery surfaces and just not needed on roads always tight and twisty. I am not such a fan of small parallel twins or the newer boxer twins, in trying to present higher power figures on paper manufacturers seem to have produced engines with high lift cams offering far less torque at lower revs yet the nature of these engines is to try shake apart and not to be smooth high revving even with heavy counter balancing so you tend to ride them back in the soft lower rpms. However sine I was riding so conservative the engine in the ER6N rarely got any exercise. I covered the miles in comfort and ease despite having a high degree of fatigue from other riding completed immediately before this so kudos to the big K for making such a user friendly machine available in Thailand.

I had a great time despite the conditions and in fact I already have a draft plan to ride there again at Christmas when it will be cooler and no fires. Really easy to ride Thailand, as always I used my old Garmin GPS, there are a few map versions on the net, not all cover the region properly but the later versions of SE Asia map does. 

I travel super light with a small carry on bag but if you bring a suitcase then can leave at rental shop however no motorcycle luggage was available. I spotted two rental shops in Chiang Rai so flying to there and doing day rides would give access to many good roads without the need to carry your gear or navigate Chiang Mai traffic – but it would be too far from the lower part of the 108 road from Mai Hong Son.

If you live in the southern hemisphere you should put Northern Thailand on your must ride list, it was great fun.

3 comments:

  1. Where is the traffic? The roads seem pleasantly abandoned. Wonderful pics, especially that exotic looking roadside building.

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  2. There rarely was much traffic once away from the towns or main routes. Of course once near a city you encounter heavy traffic but often the road is widened and to the side is a narrow lane marked for motorcycles to use. The idea is for slower scooters to pull over to allow cars past but in reality the cars are all in a long slow line so the scooters are only things moving along. Viva two wheels!

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  3. Wow, what an adventure! Shame about the smoke and ash, but the roads look fantastic.

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