Thailand had some of the most colorful temples, or “wats” in the world, golden eye catchers in even the smallest of villages.
Elephants, snakes, jungle footpaths, millions of motorcycles and golden Buddhist temples. Those were some of my first impressions when passing through Thailand on a world tour several years ago. While white snowflakes were swirling and the temperature below freezing at my home in Montana, I was riding a motorcycle through the jungles of Thailand along the border of Burma, thinking to myself, “I like this part of the globe.”
My goal, while crossing Thailand, was to hunt two specific destinations and determine which offered the best motorcycling. The first was the Mae Hong Son Loop, often touted as one of the “ten best motorcycling routes in the world,” with over 4,000 bends and curves through mountains and along the border with Burma. The other was the famed Highway 1148, 160 kilometers of up and down curves through the mountains of North Thailand, often called the “ultimate motorcycling highway.” These two roads in one country slightly larger than California but smaller than Texas seemed to be too much good motorcycling in one spot on the planet, especially when compared to places like the Alps of Europe or some of the roads in New Zealand.
Thailand was twelve time zones away, or half a world away from the cold winter of Montana, where my motorcycling would have been with me dressed like a Michelin Man. Instead I was wearing summer riding gear and enjoying nearly 90-degree weather. Occasionally I would see an elephant, once or twice a snake and everywhere motorcycles, millions of motorcycles, although most in the 100-125cc range. It was a wild contrast and one that I decided to return to for winter adventure riding over the following years.
When first arriving in Thailand I carried some of my Americanized adventure motorcycling mentality that seemingly required big displacement motorcycles to meet adventure riding requirements. After several days in the sweltering heat of Bangkok manhandling a 1000cc BMW, I returned it to the source. Between the heat, traffic congestion and expanse of this part of Thailand I decided it was not a form of adventure riding I enjoyed. I jettisoned my need for big displacement motorcycles and opted for air-conditioned taxi cabs to see Bangkok. It was a much more comfortable way of getting to the sights and tasting the environment than sweating in riding gear and a helmet in the 100-degree heat humped over a hot engine.
I stepped down in motorcycle size to a 250cc Honda XR, divested myself of some foolishly thought-to-be-needed adventure gear (like a camera tripod, sleeping bag, tent, and heavy riding boots), and left for Chiang Mai, six hours north for Bangkok, to hunt roads and trails.
Once away from the city I found riding generally quite sedate and temperate. Often I could take unpaved roads or trails off the main roads into small mountain villages where villagers proved to be friendly and helpful if I needed anything from a flat tire repaired to a room to sleep in at night.
The first route I hunted was the Mae Hong Son Loop. I spent three nights along the way in the towns of Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang, spending less than $20 each night for a clean, comfortable, and safe and air-conditioned room. The 250cc Honda was ideal for the technical riding and I was happy not to have been muscling the 1000cc BMW through the numerous curves. The Honda was even more appreciated when I got off the pavement and onto some of the jungle tracks up to and along the Burmese border.
While making this tour I noted that although I saw thousands of small displacement motorcycles, it was rare when I saw anything over 250cc. After speaking with several foreigners who owned big motorcycles I soon learned that nearly any type and size motorcycle could be had in Thailand, it was merely a matter of money: how much money the local either wanted to pay in the form of import taxes or customs or how much the traveler wanted to pay in the form of shipping to get their motorcycle into the
If a BMW enthusiast wanted an adventurer tourer, it could be acquired in Thailand, although often costing nearly twice what it would in other parts of the world.
country for use as they passed through. It was not unusual to hear of a large displacement motorcycle costing twice as much in Thailand as it would have cost in the USA or Europe where it had originated.
My adventures with authorities were usually simple enough for me to manage not to have the motorcycle I was using impounded or myself ticketed. I was on “loaner” motorcycles, both in Bangkok and North Thailand, neither rented to me or in my name. The few times I was stopped at check points I was first asked for my passport, then to see the original ownership papers. When I proffered an International Driving Permit it was politely returned as not needed. I was lucky to have been stopped by officers interested in my travels and not for some infraction.
An acquaintance from Australia was not so lucky the day he drove his Kawasaki KLR 650 into the front end of an oncoming police car. After stopping to take a photograph he had forgotten he was riding in Thailand, where driving is done on the left side of the road. As he crested a hill, on the wrong side of the road, the police car coming from the opposite direction brought him quickly back to reality and he swerved left towards his proper lane. Unfortunately the driver of the police car had gone into accident avoidance mode and swerved into the same lane to avoid hitting him. The result was while both vehicles were able to slow, the motorcycle immersed itself into the plastic front grill of the police car and the motorcyclist flew off, slid across the hood and ended up staring through the windshield of the police car at the two wide-eyed policemen.
A typical parking lot at a shopping mall demonstrated how motorcycles, especially small displacement motorcycles, play a major role in the transportation system of Thailand.
Motorcycle rental agencies were “adventure friendly,” often offering not only rental motorcycles but also free information and detailed knowledge of regional motorcycle adventure options
Fortunately the Australian was a veteran world traveler and had been wearing full body armor, helmet and gloves, albeit hot riding gear. No bones were broken and no skin had been left on the police car. However, the front end of the car was severely damaged. The slightly bent front wheel of the KLR surprisingly was the only damaged part on the 650cc Kawasaki, as the motorcycle had taken most of the hit on the side panniers and engine guards.
After paperwork was inspected and found to be in order, the police insisted the Australian go with them to a local car body repair shop to get an estimate of the cost of the damage to their police car. The amount came to nearly $750, more cash than the Australian was carrying. He first pleaded his financial shortcoming in English, which neither officer understood. Then he tried for a little Christmas spirit, as this happened on Christmas Day. This pleading too fell on deaf ears, his having forgotten that nearly 95% of Thai people are Buddhist, thus as far as the two officers were concerned Christmas Day was the same as any other day, in this case a day the foreigner must make good for his damage. They politely escorted him to two ATM machines where he was able to make-up his financial shortfall. He later told me that the officers were very polite at all times, did not issue him a ticket for driving on the wrong side of the road, and as they parted wearing the famed Thai smile, wished him, in Thai, a “Merry Christmas.”
Rather than go to the expense of shipping or flying their own motorcycles into Thailand for some adventuring while winter rages in their home countries, thousands of foreigners fly into Thailand carrying their riding gear and rent a motorcycle. This widely used technique became so easy that some adventurers returned year after year, renting a wide variety of motorcycles from the myriad of rental agencies that cater to foreigners, especially in Chiang Mai, Pattaya and Phuket. While there were some variances on the rental requirements, most often the foreigner was required to leave their passport with the rental agency as a form of insurance that they will make good on the loss or damage to the rental motorcycle while they are using it. Most often formal rental agreements were filled out and signed, but other rental agencies or agents required only the passport and cash payment for the daily rental up front.
I had seen nearly any kind of motorcycle rented, ranging from 1200cc BMWs to Ultra Classic Harley-Davidsons, with the odd KTM, Ducati and Royal Enfield in between. While most common were rentals of smaller motorcycles, a 250cc KLX for $20 to $30 per day got an adventurer on a fuel injected motorcycle able to do on- and off-pavement riding.
The “Freight Hawgs,” pilots from FedEx, rented a wide range of Harley-Davidsons from the rental agency, using a rented mini-van to follow and carry their luggage.
One group of Harley-Davidson loyalists decided to attempt the Mae Hong Son Loop on rented Harley-Davidsons circling out of Chiang Mai. The called themselves the Freight Hawgs, all having the common base of flying air cargo for FedEx and being Harley-Davidson enthusiasts. Their adventure was custom designed by a Chiang Mai-based tour and rental company, www.harley-tours-thailand.com. As the group roared out of Chiang Mai, their smiles and expectant faces showed their determination of explore Thailand on their favored motorcycle, the Harley-Davidson.
Some soon found the days of hundreds of tight, challenging curves of the Mae Hong Son Loop were more of a technical challenge than they had experienced in similar adventures to Sturgis or Daytona. At the end all expressed that they had filled their expectations in terms of adventure. The stress of the technical and foreign riding was overcome by their being able to experience their adventures on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. When one of the Hawgs was asked if he would have taken the tour had he been told only a Honda Goldwing was available versus the promised Harley-Davidson, loyal to the end he said he would have passed on the adventure.
The second road on my radar screen was the famed 1148. It was a short road, only 160 kilometers. After first riding it on a loaner 250cc Honda, I returned on a rented Yamaha 250cc, and then again on a Yamaha 600cc. Once I drove it two-up on a 1200cc BMW while a cameraman filmed from the back. The road still intrigued me, part because of the quality of the pavement, part due to the design of the curves and their apexes, and part the up and down over the mountains through the lush countryside. Having been a road racer in my earlier life, I still found some tire sliding and hard braking a test of my personal riding envelope, something I did on Highway 1148. Other times I enjoyed the scenery at a slower pace. Whether on my own motorcycle or a rental, this small stretch of pavement did seem to deserve the attention of the avid motorcycle adventurist, but those keen on curves and technique and less on the need to ride dirt or gravel.
Through some motorcycle rental agencies not only could the adventurer rent a motorcycle but they could also hire a local Thai/English speaking guide or sign up for an organized tour.
Thailand had long been a comfortable riding experience for overland motorcycle travelers transitioning Asia on world tours. Those travelers who had learned that the best source for information on traveling through Thailand was found at Horizons Unlimited often attended Horizons Unlimited Travelers Meetings in North Thailand, usually held in January. There I found numerous adventure models of motorcycles seldom seen in Thailand like the Kawasaki KLR650 or a BMW R100GSPD.
My adventures in Thailand have continued over the years. Since the first taste of what is known as “Amazing Thailand” and the two targets on my personal riding radar screen I still remained undecided if the Mae Hong Son Loop was one of the ten best rides in the world, or Highway 1148 the ultimate motorcycling highway. That uncertainty gave me a reason to return and give each further testing.