This post is the first part of a recent trip riding 3 countries in SE Asia. The other areas I visited were the Philippines and Borneo, Malaysia which I will follow up on shortly. I have already toured the northern mountains of Thailand twice and was not initially planning to return this Christmas however a opportunity arose to meet up with my long time ride partner from Australia first in Thailand and then continuing into Philippines so I thought why not! My previous rides in Thailand can be found by following these links. 2013 Ride. 2014 Ride.
If you are tempted to try an overseas ride then in my opinion Thailand would be one of the best options to start with in Asia. Chiang Mai is a good starting point. This is a easy place to explore, downtown is just a short drive from airport and then you can walk to everything. Very simple to rent a motorbike from. You can do a ride from here just by paper map as it is easy to navigate but a GPS or offline map on a smart phone is always going to be handy. I use a GPS with a battery pack in a case that I velcro to the handlebars, (info here) this has worked for me around the world. As for motorcycles I have rented from the three most well known bike rental shops in Chiang Mai and here is my verdict on them.
No.1. Pops rental has so far been the best for me. Huge fleet of brand new or very late model bikes, all good condition. No need to book even high season as they have very large number of bikes (about 30 to 40) A smooth transaction, I was on the road quickly. Negatives are no insurance.
No 2. Mr Mechanic rental. The bikes are older Kawasaki ER6’s with high mileage and the tyres fitted are no name however I give 2nd spot to this shop as they do offer some limited insurance on their bikes which no one else does and they will reserve bikes if you give a deposit.
No.3 Tony’s Big Bikes. The bikes are perhaps similar age to Mr Mechanic but were much better maintained. I relegate this shop to 3rd as despite having had a confirmed reservation on my 2nd visit to Chiang Mai I was told no bike available and when pointing to the bikes on the lot was told they were reserved the day before so I could not have them despite my reservation being made 6 weeks prior.
Rental helmets at all these shops are total crap. It is a shame they cannot at least replace visors occasionally which are so badly scratched they cannot be seen out of. I managed to secure the use of one of the staff own helmets from Mr Mechanic which was not very comfortable but least ways had a visor only minor scratched up. Of the three Tony’s had perhaps the best helmets but most seem reserved for the tours that shop operates. They also offer rental jackets however the one I rented had not been washed in some time and was very soiled. Best to bring your own gear and be comfortable. And of course YMMV with any of these shops.
The roads are mostly in excellent condition and the options for riding curvy mountain roads seem endless. Almost any road in any direction north of Chiang Mai will be good. The main thing is to time your ride well. The burn offs start around February and make the air quality poor and the roads slippery with ash. After this the rains begin and so late December early January seems to work good for me but check weather and you will be able to ride other times too. It gets cool in the mountains and in the mornings at year end and January so a wind breaker is needed.
Make sure you have a International Drivers Permit when you ride in Thailand. It is one of a couple of places where the police want to see this and not your drivers licence and will fine you for failure to produce it. Costs are very reasonable despite the exchange rate not being what it once was. The bike rental cost compared to western countries remains low. Hotels, food and drinks are all reasonably priced too. I was looking at a motorcycle tour company price for a Northern Thailand tour and it was $3750US plus $1040US single supplement which is just madness. You can get a nice room with breakfast for around $30. $45 is top hotel. So for this 2 week 13 night tour they charge you an additional $80 a night if you won’t share a $40 room. Nice little rip off which I see repeated by many tours. Then they offer a capped damage bill in case of accident of 1000 euros upon payment of 200 euros but Mr Mechanic offers lower cap included in rental. If you are going on a organised tour it should include that standard, I always look and think well WTF are you paying for then? All up with a private room you would be shelling out $5000US plus you still have to pay your way with fuel and drinks and most meals. So how about the route, surely it must be superb with all that time and money, well actually is misses the best roads despite claims of being researched. What nonsense, go for a week and you will have ample time to ride my route, see the sights and do it for 1/3 of that cost all inclusive.
We rented from Mr Mechanic this trip having assumed being Christmas holidays the place would be packed and the bikes all booked but actually it was quiet and Pops rentals had a full lot but anyway we already had paid a deposit so just went with our original plan. My bike turned out to be a ER6n with 80,000 on the clock and not too much straight on it. It is a tribute to Kawasaki how very good these ER bikes are after such hard lives that mine still rode semi reasonable. My mate had the fairing version and not long into the ride we noticed his front tyre was bald. My bikes front tyre was only slightly better having low tread on a tyre called a ‘Road Winner’ which I decided soon into things was a product of the even less well known Slippery Tyre Company, China.
We had an extended lunch not far out of town while they brought another bike to replace my mates green machine. I probably should have looked mine over beforehand as I would have not taken it either but we got a very late start due to miscommunications and slow going at the shop so I just jumped on mine and went then realised it was in car terms a ‘beater’. But I have ridden worse so soon started to adjust to everything being slightly bent and the engine having a big flat spot at a certain point in the rev range which reminded me of my old 750 when the carbs would go out, but this was EFI so the poor things engine must have been in bad shape. Good thing I don’t use rev counters or needed to mind my speed as the dash on mine was illegible seeming to be affected from years of sitting in the hot Thai sun however the fuel gauge worked which was all that mattered.
Below, my mates first rental the green Er6 and my red P.O.S.
So much for the easy day one. The GPS was saying ETA 7.30pm and you always have to add an hour to any Garmin ETA since they are as reliable as a Thai fake Rolex. I decided to cut down our original route taking a short cut to Mai Hong Son via the 1088 and 1263 roads. The 1088 I had visited previously and it had some mixed surface but this time it was fresh hot mix sealed and excellent. The 1263 was also mighty fine riding and being new to me I enjoyed it very much. So despite missing out on much of the famed 108 we had a great ride on these back roads. Alas even with just brief stops and a quicker pace set by my mate up front who is a master of back road riding, we could not avoid being in darkness by the time we got back onto the 108 for the last 60 km into MHS. Surprisingly we managed to get into town a bit after 7.00pm which was a excellent recovery but something I do not wish to have to do again.
Above 1088. Below 1263. (these photos from net)
There is at least as many curves on the roads surrounding MHS as the 1864 figure claimed for the famous 108. You get fatigued riding this area from the corners, they never let up. By the time you are back to Chiang Mai or north to Pai you want to get out of 2nd or 3rd gear and long to see a bit of straight road. Ha-ha, not too many places like this where you can ride a couple hundred km of non stop curves. Personally I like the open flowing roads these days more. I used to prefer technical roads when younger. The 108 on the south is slightly more flowing and also the road surface on the south of MHS is excellent where as the road to Pai has some mixed surfaces.
Part of the enjoyment when riding in SE Asia is the notion that there is less rules and you can do as you want. To a certain extent this it true. The rules are still there but mostly not enforced which can be a double edged knife and riding a bike you must assume that the other vehicles always have right of way and if something happens you will be at fault no matter what. Still it is uplifting to ride there and if you live in a police state like Australia you will feel a real sense of freedom. Personally I no longer have the desire to ride that fast but I enjoy not having to think about the speedo just the same. Thailand has a nice balance of freedom without lawlessness.
Day two was going to be the longest ride day and it turned out even longer thanks to heavy traffic on the 1095 road to Pai with many Thai people enjoying a day out on the Saturday along with tourists galore. I had plotted a route with some new roads rather than riding the busy 107 north but the Garmin was playing up big time on this day and completely dropped the route I wanted via the 1001, 1150 then the 118 and instead took us north via the 107 for a good distance before crashing and by the time I realised we should have turned off it was too far to turn back. So we continued north to take the 109 over the mountains to Chiang Rai. As luck would have it this road which I had ridden previously and wanted to avoid due to poor surface had just been freshly resurfaced and turned out to be one of the best bits of tar of the trip. (below a typical sort of road ridden today, see my previous posts for more)
Thai buses are all elaborately customised with blinged engines out back with lots of lighting etc. Chiang Rai clock. And a rare photo for my ride reports of not only myself but also my friend from many ride reports in Australia on the right.
Day three and another day of fairly clear skies which I have not yet mentioned. This trip was the first for me where views were not totally obscured by smoke haze. This was especially good news since today I wanted to visit a view point on the border with Laos at a place called Phu Chi Fa. The ride there from Chiang Rai included a lovely road sweeping through the valley before a very steep climb on the final section. The border lookout itself was unfortunately a long walk from the car park and with no way to secure our bags we just just stayed on the Thai side which I now regret and make a mental note to bring something to secure my bag to the bike next time like a small cable lock.
Above, examples of the roads on the way to and around Phu Chi Fa. The replacement ER6 my friend got seemed to be pretty good. I was getting used to the Road Winner front tyre and had more or less established its grip limit and kept just below where it would want to slide which is always such fun with a motorcycle front end.
After this was the fabulous 1148. Rated the best ride in Thailand I really cannot say enough good things about this road, it is just a wonderful bit of surveying that any rider coming to Thailand should enjoy. Actually it is worth the trip there just to ride this road. Todays route.
Who let these two idiots into the country, might be what some of the local riders were wondering as we passed them.
Day four was a loop ride from Nan, an easy short ride but the GPS got bamboozled again and so we did not complete it exactly as planned but had a nice ride all the same in the high mountains north of Nan where I finally got around to taking a few decent road photos . Riding up very high today on the 1256 road which climbs to about 1900m. Unfortunately some low clouds made for chilly temperatures and I was really cold in summer riding gear. Additionally we could not see anything much of the views from the top as the clouds were swirling around but the riding was still excellent and most of the photos below are the 1081.
Great day of riding but sadly not without incident. The 4th photo above was taken moments before my bike fell off it’s stand. My own fault as it was downhill and besides that the gear shift was wonky and the gear box very well worn so either gravity overcome it being in gear or the bike jumped out of gear. Lesson leant and fortunately the fall was onto one of the roadside concrete posts which stopped damage to the usual external parts but did put a big dent in the tank. Still that is better than needing repairs to be able to ride but I fretted about what the damage bill would run to as the insurance that was provided had a very high excess but in the end it was a couple of hundred dollars and they did not charge us the balance of extra rental time so I was happy enough with the result. Todays route was a variation of my loop last time in Nan.
Parking at the Nan hotel, inside the restaurant due to parking limits out front. Really a crap hotel compared to where I stayed last time but you win some, you lose some.
Last day and again I had planned a route that was a variation on my previous rides trying to add some new roads to each day of this ride. Leaving Nan we had good weather and great riding but as we progressed there was some rain clouds on the horizon and the route I had planned would have seen us most likely getting wet so we opted to make a few changes I did not get to ride any new roads on this day. Oh well always good to think that leaves something for next time. Most likely when I return here I will explore the roads to the south of Chiang Mai but that will be awhile off as I would like to ride Laos and Cambodia before that but you never know, it really is a superb riding destination.