Tuesday 25 January 2011

Northern Thailand - Nirvana on two wheels

Your humble scribe with friends at the Golden Triangle.
When it comes to motorcycling, the northern Thailand's Lanna region really is heaven – or nirvana – on two wheels. Surprisingly excellent roads (the drivers, well, that’s a separate issue), stunning mountain and valley vistas, cheap petrol with smiling pump-attendants, plentiful accommodation in the 300-1000 baht a night range, tasty food on every corner, and we haven’t even got to the best bit yet …
In what other country can you have a hard day in the saddle and then stop in just about any small town and get a great massage for your weary bum that’ll cost you around 150-200 baht per hour? That's $5 or $6 to you.

It doesn’t matter what two wheels you get around on frankly. 100cc Honda Ladyboys or 1800cc Harleys are all the same to me (although I choose to ride a BMW F650GS) … just a way of getting out there and seeing what too few other visitors to the region are seeing. Away from the well-worn tour bus circuit. Most rental shops (see box) cater well in the 200-650cc range, bikes that are big enough to deal with the vertiginous challenges of some of the mountainous terrain and give you a comfortable enough ride along the way.

On the road to Doi Ankhang.
Before you head off, two words: GT Rider (www.gt-rider.com). This website is an amazing resource where keen riders (many of them passionate motorcycling residents of the north) write up ride reports, recommend hotels and eateries to stay or avoid, and generally clue you in to what’s hot and what’s not in Lanna. 

GT Rider was set up by Aussie David Unkovich who lives in Chiang Mai and has covered possibly one million kilometers on these roads over the last 30 years. Jing jing!

He also publishes the best maps outlining classic trips such as the Mae Sa Valley / Samoeng loop, the Mae Hong Son loop, the Golden Triangle, and so on. (GT Rider maps are available from many bookstores in Lanna and on GPS too.)

You can string these together to make your own customized itinerary. And, of course, there’s all the bits in between that make it really interesting … it may be a quaint hill-tribe village a few kilometers off the track, it might be a great coffee spot lookout (like 7km south of Mae Hong Son, where the guy has the kettle boiling on the log fire!). Well, you get the idea.

Rice padi in the Kok River valley.
As for my personal favourites, there’s the 1148 which links Chiang Kham to Nan, an endless windy road, perfectly cambered with gorgeous valleys (keep your eye on the road, though). Chiang Mai to Pai’s 482 curves. Highway 12 from Phitsanulok west to Lom Sak with picture-postcard valley views, flower gardens and coffee shops aplenty. All the arrow-straight highways between Uttaradit and Sukhothai where you can really put your machine through its paces … 

Which brings us to speed limits. I did see a police car. Once. Somewhere near Lamphun. Entering a town, signs read: ‘City Limit – Reduce Speed.’ It doesn’t say down to what.Mostly it’s up to the rider to ride according to the conditions within his or her own ability. Sometimes a brilliant road will suddenly become a 10m stretch of gravel, with no warning sign (at least not in English).  And then,  there’s other things you will routinely encounter on roads along the way: Stray dogs. Chickens. Water buffalo. Elephants. 

But the biggest hazard is other motorists and, on a serious note, the fatality rates in Thailand are extremely high; unlicensed drivers and riders, drunk driving, buses overtaking cars which are overtaking trucks who are passing a scooter on a blind rise round a sharp mountain corner on a single-laned road.

Which is probably why many opt for off-road riding as a better alternative.

 One of the most endearing things – and this says a lot about amazing northern Thailand and its people – is the amount of times I’ve had my bike fixed for free. Several times I’ve pulled into a bike shop en route up-country to have, say, my chain tightened. They put it up on the blocks, a couple of guys spend 10 or 15 minutes tightening it, then wave you on your way; no charge. ‘No, no, I just help you,’ they say. I insist on tipping them 20 or 40 baht. Another time I had a new brake light put into my BMW. Parts and labour 30 baht. (This is NOT at the official dealership by the way!).

So what are you waiting for? Mount up and enjoy Lanna.


Touring and rental companies Chiang Mai
Asian Motorcycle Adventures
080-493-1012, info@asianbiketour.com; www.asianbiketour.com

Mr Mechanic (off-road tours)
4 Soi 5 Moon Muang Road, 053-214-708 http://mr-mechanic1994.com

Thai Bike Voyage (BMW’s)
97 Moo 5, San Kamphaeng, 053-115-802; www.thaibikevoyage.com

Tony’s Big Bikes
17 Ratchamanka Rd, 085-107-2893; www.chiangmai-motorcycle-rental.com

Touring and rental companies, Chiang Rai:

TS Motor
527/5-6 Banphaprakan Rd, 053713652; st_motorcycle@hotmail.com

Enduro Thailand (off-road tours)
535 Moo 16, Soi Den Haa 9 / 1, T. Robwiang; www.endurothailand.com

Rental Shop Pai:

JJ Offroad Rentals
100/1 Chaisongkram Rd, Pai, 089-560-0613

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