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.
If you are tempted to try an overseas ride then in my opinion Thailand would be one of the easiest and best options. 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. 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. Negatives are no insurance. (update – can buy it online separately)
No 2. Mr Mechanic rental. The bikes are older Kawasaki ER6’s with higher 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.
No.3 Tony’s Big Bikes. The bikes are perhaps similar age to Mr Mechanic but were better maintained and have quality tyres. I relegate this shop to 3rd as my experiences is even if you make a firm booking they will rent the bikes out and tell you nothing available. In which case just walk to Pops as I did.
There are 3 other large rental shops and many small with couple of bikes. Even peak season you can rent a bike no booking. Rental helmets at all these shops are poor. Jackets are not going to be good either. Best to bring your own gear and be comfortable. 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. It gets cool in the mountains and in the mornings at year end and January so a wind breaker is needed but days are hot.
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 will fine you for failure to produce it. Costs are very reasonable despite the exchange rate not being what it once was. Some scammers online try sell overpriced tours. You can ride here all up for $100 a day on late model bike in good hotel and food and beer. (previous rides in Thailand can be found by following these links. 2013 Ride. 2014 Ride)
We rented from Mr Mechanic this trip, my mate seeking to have insurance. We basically were given the oldest bikes on the lot and not long into the ride we noticed m mates front tyre was bald. 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 asked for mine to be swapped also as it was not running smooth. Not sure why we were targeted as newbies or something but I cannot recommend renting there compared to Pops. 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 it is 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. Far too long a ride I do not wish to have to do again.
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. Personally I like the open flowing roads these days more. I used to prefer technical roads when younger. Part of the enjoyment when riding in SE Asia is the notion that there is less rules and you can do as you want. 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 heavy traffic on the road to Pai. That section of the MHS loop doesn’t ride well. Garmin maps for Thailand are very poor and it could not navigate the route I wanted via the 1001, 1150 then the 118 and instead took us north via the 107 for a good distance before the device crashed and locked up. As luck would have it the 109 to Chiang Rai had been freshly resurfaced and turned out to be one of the best bits of tar of the trip. Thai buses are all elaborately customised with blinged engines out back.
Chiang Rai clock.
Day three and another day of fairly clear skies 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. 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 thanks to the poor map and so we did not complete it exactly as planned but had a nice ride on the 1081. Great day of riding but not without incident. The 4th photo above was taken moments before my bike fell off it’s stand. My own fault. Lesson leant to make double sure bike is securely parked. 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. I fretted about what the damage bill would run to as the insurance that was provided had a high excess but in the end it was only a couple of hundred dollars and they did not charge as extra for late return which I thought was reasonable. Todays route. Parking at the Nan hotel, inside the restaurant due to parking limits out front. 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, it was still a superb ride. That’s all from Northern Thailand, do consider visiting here it is easy and safe destination no need to pay for expensive tour.
(2018 note – Some photos slightly fixed up, not much can be done with low resolution originals, overly wordy post edited. For more road photos look at my earlier rides in Thailand and for more interesting photos look to my later rides there)