I decided 2017 should be a year I try different things. So instead of my usual solo travel I joined up with a bunch of like minded blokes to ride around Thailand.
I am a confident solo traveler but I enjoy the company of others too. This year I decided I am going to try meet people and be more social so when I was invited to join an online ride club I said ok and the Thai ride they were planning sounded pretty good so I signed on for that too. The route was off to places I had not considered and that interested me but I mostly just thought it would be good to try riding with others again after riding so many miles by myself.
Thailand is one of my favorite destinations for road riding. If you have never been there or never ventured beyond the famous beach towns then you may not realize the north and east of the country is riddled with endless fantastic motorcycle roads. It would easy rate number one riding country for me except it lacks the jaw dropping scenery of other places but as far as the riding goes it is hard to top.
I flew from Tokyo to Bangkok a couple days prior just to avail myself to the best priced airfares. That let me do some shopping and feast on the superb Indian food you can get in little India town in Bangkok (before two weeks non stop Thai food). I flew with Scoot which along with Jetstar I rate as two of the worst airlines to fly with. Cheap but nasty as the saying goes. To Chiang Mai I flew Thai Lion which by comparison was great service despite the fare being just $40 AUS.
Taxi downtown had a sticker covering everything.
You can really see the pollution leaving Bangkok. The big cities have their own micro climates now from a blanket of smog.
The first night some of us met for dinner and then morning of day one I got to meet everyone as we picked up our bikes. I rented a Thai made Honda CB500X from Pops rental in Chiang Mai which is actually a NC750X with same engine sleeved down smaller. This is the new model with LED headlight and few minor styling tweaks. What I found most changed to the previous CB500X I rode in Thailand was how smooth Honda has made the engine. It is silky smooth now and that is really some achievement for a parallel twin. I also felt the suspension was much more compliant on this new model to the previous which was rather harsh.
Pops has a wide range of motorcycles, much more than what they list on their web site. Their fleet is maybe a hundred bikes easy dwarfing the competition. I was very tempted to rent a MT-09 like I had in New Zealand but the CB500X is the base price rental at 1200 baht a day and does all I need so why spend more.
First day was a local ride. Doi Inthanon is highest mountain in Thailand and is an easy easy day ride from Chiang Mai at about 200km round trip. It is a bit busy in parts but it was good to test the bikes out as couple of the guys were unhappy with the luggage or the performance of the rear brake on their rentals. Personally I never use the rear brake. The California Superbike School (Keith Code’s) famous advanced riding/race skills book (bible) Twist of the Wrist can explain why on a dry sealed surface you should not use it either.
Next morning we were off proper on our way north. It took me a bit to adjust to riding in a group. I was in the middle of a number of bikes and did not like the surge affect of riders slowing for corners then speeding on the straights. I ride a steady pace rolling off the throttle rather than braking for corners then rolling on the throttle exiting the corner but not gassing it on the straights.
Our route today was on roads I have ridden before but I was enjoying to chat to others and after lunch found being at the rear worked best for me as I could pull over to take a photo or have a drink without others stopping to ask am I ok then ride my own pace not running into the back of others every corner.
Above our lunch stop which surprised the locals but then they were pleased to make a big sale I think. Below some of the road side sights in every town.
The Black Dogs.
Members above from Scotland, USA, Austria, Canada and Australia with ages from 20’s to 70’s.
Day three we are riding south east on familiar roads until lunch and then some new to me roads later in the day. A couple of the guys based in the Philippines were very hesitant to eat the food from the road side eateries, and having had food poisoning in Philippines a couple of times I understood completely but I have never been sick from food in Thailand. The hygiene and quality of food is a world apart from the Philippines so eventually they ate but were very nervous about it.
These Honda Groms are everywhere. The small wheels don’t suit going too far but must admit I wanted to ride one.
Motorcycle friendly road cone… Seems legit. Day three route below.
Day four was my turn to be road captain or group ride leader. Every day it was a someone’s turn but you could give it to someone else if not sure or did not bring any navigation with you. I started with a morning brief. I basically had two things to say which was no need to ride in formation, leave that to the Blue Angels or Harley owners. Second thing was the guys from North America were sitting in the passing lane and pissing off the locals heaps. To be fair to them they were riding on the wrong side of the road as Thailand drives on the left, so the passing lane on a four lane divided road on the right probably felt like the slow lane. I was concerned someone was going to get nudged off the road as Thai drivers are always in a mad hurry and drive at very high speed everywhere. There is no road rule enforcement and Thailand does have the highest road fatality rate in the world if you remove war torn countries from the list so I was wanting everyone to realise riding a motorcycle there is fun but you are at the bottom of the food chain on the road.
In the morning there was a superb ride via route 11 south to Uttaradit. I gassed it a bit here to enjoy the curves. I brought my GoPro Hero 5 Session with me and a magnet base and was picking this up frequently to capture things but it really did not work out as well as I had wished and should have pulled over to take photos but that is not easy in a group situation as the smokers will light up and others will pull off gear and what would have been a 2 minute stop for me turns into a extended stop so I am missing a lot of photos I would have normally taken this trip.
I also found out when home the GoPro did not take any still photos just videos. As of writing I am still unable to get it to take photos even in photo only mode. Seems like the software inside has become locked in one mode.
Lunch I took control somewhat by accident today and ordered a bunch of stuff to share as is the Asian way rather then everyone trying to order separately. It turned out to be the best tasting meal of the trip for me with a depth of flavour in familiar dishes I had not experienced before. The taste was incredible. Best Thai food I have ever tasted.
After lunch the fake Chinese Givi top box I had detached itself. Someone came to my rescue with a bungee strap to hold it in place. Everyone's fake Givi cases fell off in similar fashion over the course of the tour.
Rural petrol station
As ride captain I took the group to visit a temple complex off the beaten track in the afternoon. So beautiful and no tourists besides us here at all.
Did you know Thailand is the home of the chicken. I mean like every chicken in every country on earth can trace it’s ancestry back to the original chicken species in Thailand. No kidding.
This afternoon had some more fantastic roads but also some heavy traffic. I had a couple of sightseeing spots to show the group around a lake with traditional boats.
The plan was to ride the other side of the lake but everyone was hot and tired and it was already getting on time wise so I handed over the lead to another rider to take fastest route into town since I had preset the ride in my Garmin via those hills in the photo above. Riding into Loei the group were using Google maps navigation and while people say it is good I could see my Garmin was suggestion alternative route to the hotel that looked much shorter so I decided to turn off and see what happened. I got to the hotel well ahead of the group who could not fathom how but shows that a dedicated GPS still might hold an edge over newer things like Google navigation. But probably not for long.
Day five we turned south and the ride leader took us off looking for some caves. We all stopped for a break and check directions and I went to take some photos with Philipp from Austria and we got separated from the group. No problems as being Mr. solo rider I had my GPS with every days route just in case I decided I wanted to ride my own pace anytime. So we set off towards the original route but ended up further away from where the group had gone. I decided no point to go back as already we were 35km in front so we messaged going ahead to the lunch spot see you all there and set off.
Being just two riders, both able to pass vehicles quickly and maintain a steady pace we ended up getting to the lunch spot about an hour ahead of the group but the cafes cook was not there this day so nothing was being served besides snacks. The area was kind of remote and we tried the next eatery but could not communicate at all and ended up having a cold drink and riding on. Philipp was very concerned about eating from the road side food places and as we were only a couple hours from our hotel wanted to go on to town early to look for a phone having lost his a day before.
I quite enjoyed this day of riding with Philipp. Riding with just one other person of similar pace was more what I was used to in my home area with my ride buddy from Northern NSW. We stopped for a rest at a 7/11 equipped gas station in route as it was a very hot afternoon and I wanted to keep up the fluid intake and have something light to eat. The 7/11’s in Thailand are not up to the standard of Japan where you get an amazing array of food but they are far better than most countries where they only sell fizzy drinks and candy bars. Here they have fresh sandwiches, espresso coffee, fresh fruit and quality bakery items. You could easy use them for lunch on tour in Thailand if not wanting to eat in street cafes.
Typical road side café – I have never gotten anything but good food in Thailand but I understand Philipp’s concern being that he is only used to Philippines where eating at somewhere like this would be very stupid. Below, some local items.
Below riding along beside the lake in the afternoon and resting at the 7/11. Most of the service/gas stations with a 7/11 also had espresso coffee shop, a place to sit and clean toilets with paper. Philippe had purchased toilet tissue for the ride but it went unopened however again this comes from his living in Philippines where you always need to supply your own.
Some video from first five days. (note I have reduced the volume of the video by 30db in editing to dull the wind noise and not added music which I end up muting in other peoples videos so don’t turn your volume up)
Off the bikes the fun continued as the day’s leader also got to pick the place to eat or call on help from the group which had some guys familiar with Thailand. Previously we had been eating out in restaurants but we also got to do what I prefer which is eat in the markets. Not only is it far cheaper you get excellent food and why eat inside when it is warm and pleasant out. Sitting around drinking beer in a regional Thai town under the stars on a warm night was perfect to me. Back in Japan it was freezing cold and snowing.
This days route.
Day six I had some of the most amazing riding on roads that totally surprised me. The night before last I met a British chap in a bar who was a rider and indeed someone who had ridden most of Thailand where he has been living the last 13 years. I asked him his top 3 roads and two of which I had ridden before. In reverse order the famous 1148 the lies between Chiang Rai and Nan which is superb. Also the incredible 1081 that runs north of Nan (or I think this was his number 2 as lots of great roads there) but his number one was where I was heading today. Route 12 that runs across from Khon Kaen to Phitsanulok. Now if the other two roads which are quite frankly as good as road riding gets then I was wondering what can this route 12 be like.
Starting mild it goes through first the Tat Mok national park where the road sweeps and swoops along for 50km of non stop beautiful curves.
It was bliss. Then there is a break before the next stage but first we had lunch and went to a temple for a photo shoot.
No drones and no parking either but a hundred baht slipped to the guard and we got a couple of good group photos
Then we started the next section which runs through Thung Salaang Luang National park. This is the bit that I was told about last night but until I got there I could not imagine. It is a 4 lane perfectly surveyed and sealed highway that is twisty like Burringbah range in northwern NSW for 50km!. It is a dream, your own racetrack if you wish with zero police, a fantasy. This really is a motorcycle paradise. I have no still photos thanks to the GoFail hero 5. I do have a little video to give an idea, not the best quality POV however in lieu of any photos I will post it anyway.
Really great to be able to use all of a motorcycle engine, so much more satisfying (and safe) than a modern sports bike with more power than can be used by anyone who’s initials are not V.R. on public roads. But maybe that is just me. It’s not a sign of age as even 20 years ago I enjoyed riding my Honda VFR400R far more than the Kawasaki ZXR750 I had prior to it. Anyway I digress. As always the wide angle grossly exaggerates the movement and speed in these videos. The bike is not weaving that is the camera moving as all hand held shot.
Never saw any real elephants but it was a great day of riding.
Day seven I woke up early and went for a walk around town and got some drinks to pack in the top case. I suppose you already know Thailand is the home of the original Red Bull drink that was licenced by a clever and now very rich guy from Austria. Bottle of the original costs just 10 baht in a 7/11 or about 0.40 cents Aus compared to a can in Australia costing about $4.00.
Morning rush hour at the station with the official access to platform 2 being across the track made me smile. Back in Australia angry for no reason people would be waving their arms and yelling danger Will Robinson danger. So liberating to be away from the nanny state.
We continued west over to the border of Myanmar. The morning was mostly highway. There was some interesting historic sites along the way but being in the group it was not so easy to stop unplanned somewhere so I made a mental note to retrace this in the future. Everyone was feeling restless and tired on the easy but boring roads so the morning coffee break was enjoyed by all. Being a connoisseur of canned coffee in Japan I had to try the local variant in Thailand. Pretty good and appears to be made by Japanese company.
Men's toilets are el natural.
We had another great lunch at a road side eatery. I love Thai food and spicy food so every meal was something special for me to enjoy.
Leaving here west the corners were non stop all afternoon. Not technically part of the MHS loop but the 1175 joins the 105 north to the loop and by my reckoning easy doubles the number of corners in total. I had never ridden these roads before and was very impressed. I’d go so far to say I liked this lower area more than the road north from Mai Hong Son as it had so very few cars.
Tonight we were staying right on the border to Myanmar. There was a night market and 75% of the people attending had come across the river from Myanmar, their appearance was notably different as well the Burmese language stood out from the Thai I had been hearing the last two weeks. Black dog member Andreas from Austria joined me enjoying the old school shooting arcade.
We pooled our winnings to get a fluffy toy and gave it to a small Burmese boy who had been looking on. Great end to another great day.
Morning of day eight I had a problem. I went to bed fine but woke up with something in my eye. I went to the pharmacy and got an eye bath kit and washed it frequently but when the group was ready I was not and said I would catch up later. The main organizer of the ride however was having nothing of it and told me to get on the back of his bike and took me to the local hospital. There I was seen promptly and got weighed and my blood pressure and temperature taken before being sent on to doctor who examined my eye and said there was nothing in it now so perhaps I had managed to remove the object already with the eye wash but still sent me on to have the eye irrigated/flushed by two nurses and then I was given some special eye drops to relieve the irritation. Total cost 200 baht (about $8.00 Aus) I respect every countries right to do things their way but I do struggle sometimes with how Americans are against things like public health and welfare being provided in the States. But there has been way too much politics in the press lately so I’ll kick that soap box away before I get tempted.
I left the hospital with a patch over my eye and instructions issued not to operate a motor vehicle. I promptly removed that patch on the way back to the hotel and attached my new travel companion from the market last night to the CB500X for good luck before setting off.
It is a silicon rubber pink elephant that has a LED inside that flashes when it bounces up and down on the elastic cord.
We stopped out of town, standing in Thailand looking across the river to Myanmar. No wall being built here.
The road south from the 108 is really spectacular climbing high then dropping steeply into a valley then repeat over and over. I was just taking it easy. My eyesight was ok I just was in a mood to go slow and sat at the back for the most part. Then Philipps bike threw it’s chain on a very steep section of road. He managed to get it down to somewhere flat then we waited for the others to realize we were stopped as no phone signal. Fortunately not only was one of the guys a mechanic he also carries a decent tool kit and Joel had the bike fixed in no time. If it had been me alone then I would have been stranded and this gave me some thing to consider how I manage this sort of risk better on future solo rides.
And then it was corner after corner up to where the 108 comes in from the east to be on the Mai Hong Son loop proper. Only another 1864 corners to go from there! - but first we stopped for lunch at a riders café and then when leaving I let the group go ahead and got some delicious fresh mango.
I had a ball playing catch up to the group. It was nice being on a light easy to turn motorcycle. Yet again I thought what am I doing riding such a big heavy motorcycle in Japan. The weather was a sunny 31 degrees. There had been no rain on the trip whatsoever and none was forecast in the foreseeable future. Perfect time to ride Thailand. And being in those conditions of course a naked bike is fine but back in Japan in the cold I do like the full weather protection of the FJR1300. But if a budget motorcycle like the CB500X with modest power and simple suspension and braking can feel a lot more fun then am I missing out of the true essence of riding being on the huge FJR.
Not sure what happened next, brain fade in the heat perhaps but I got carried away and my pace crept up from easy going to quite spirited. I found myself chasing down and passing all the other riders then continuing at excessive speed for a few hundred more corners before I took a break at the town of Khum Yuam. On further consideration maybe riding the FJR1300 which forces me to take a relaxed pace in Japan is not such a bad thing after all.
I found some shade and ate the mango that had been carefully peeled and sliced up and packed for me. I always carry a plastic fork and spoon when I travel in case I need, the ones they hand out free at 7/11 in Japan and usually this comes in handy as it did today. It was also really hot now, the days heat seemed to peak about 3.00pm after a cool morning and mild temps till 11.00am. I took 30 minutes off to rest and rehydrate having packed some drinks in the top box with the mango. Then I set off again to regroup but this time at a more sensible pace. I caught up with everyone just before MHS town at the lookout which today was not too hazy unlike previously.
Tonight dinner was by the lake in the touristy but lovely town. I was back to just phone photos on this trip not bothering to bring my proper camera but besides night time shots like below there really is not that much difference anymore.
Next morning we all went to get out certificates of having ridden the Mai Hong Son loop. I never knew this sort of thing existed but by the look of the 100’s of biker club stickers at the chamber of commerce I was as the only person not to know
It was actually really cool and positively cold when riding hence the coat under the mesh jacket. The girls in the back of the pickup agreed.
Today was another 1000 corners from MHS to the bottom of the range as we made our way to Pai. I slipped away just before lunch to see what the view might be like at the famous Doi Kiew viewpoint. On a clear morning you can see the valley full of fog and the mountains stretching on and on but today it was very hazy with a lot of smoke in the air compared to previous days. (Northern Thailand on the Myanmar border gets extreme levels of smoke pollution every year from February March until the rains arrive in April)
Lunch was at the exact same place I stopped last time I rode the MHS loop! Great meal for about $2.
From Pai on you encounter lots of young people on scooters who have ridden there from Chiang Mai. I rode with one guy a little way who had the scooter flat out. Don’t need gears or a big bike to have fun. That section of road down on the flat is actually more fun for me than much of the mountain pass as I like sweeping corner roads best of all.
I put my new friend up front for the final ride back into Chiang Mai.
Some video of the ride last couple days
No dramas back at Pops rental shop, just a quick glance at the bikes and we all were finished until next time. Very good to deal with as they were previously. I have rented from Tony’s big bikes and Mr. Mechanic but prefer Pops who have a much newer, better maintained fleet and so many bikes that even peak season you can walk in and get something on the spot no reservation.
And so it was over... I want to start back again in reverse. Tomorrow.
I had a great time with these guys all of whom I didn’t know from a bar of soap before 10 days ago and it was also very affordable. If you join a professional organized tour then you can pay up to $7000 for a ride in Thailand but it is not an expensive place to ride. The bike rental was 1200 Baht a day, hotels 600-800 baht a day, fuel average of 300 baht a day, meals 50-200 baht each depending on simple or grand. $100 day will cover everything. Navigation is easy most guys were just using smart phone and google map navigation. Tourist sim card with 4G data unlimited two weeks 299 baht. Use a power bank to keep phone charged and buy a bike mount from eBay for a few dollars. It’s safe, food is great, beer is cheap, no policing of speed so can ride relaxed not having to check that every 5 seconds. I really cannot recommend it highly enough.
Read more about riding Thailand in my previous ride reports 2015, 2014, 2013. Lots of road photos in those reports to give a better idea of the quality of the riding but honestly you cannot imagine how good it is until you go.
BTW, Thailand has a great coffee culture. This is typical of what you receive when you order a coffee. I savored every mouthful and aroma as I departed to the Philippines where they serve instant coffee.
Thanks for visiting. More photos can be found on Instagram.
Overview of the journey.