(Above) My choice for a “going native” adventure motorcycle was a seven year-old Kawasaki Kaze ZX130. The 130cc single cylinder pumped out a claimed 9.79 HP@7500 rpm. (Below) Waterproof saddle bags from Aerostich easily attached to the rear of the ZX130.
When I suggested we might find adventure by going native, doing a road trip on smaller motorcycles, the BMW owner balked due to the possibility of his being seen on something he viewed as unmanly. However, the idea was germinating inside the adventure seeking portion of my brain. When I made a similar suggestion to another American expat, who had a collection of motorcycles in his stable ranging from 250cc downwards, Jeffrey McCollum said, “Why not?”
McCollum and I rendezvoused at The Rider’s Corner Inn and Restaurant for a planning meeting with key people in the Southeast Asia motorcycling community. The Rider’s Corner had become a motorcycle traveler’s touch point for Southeast Asia, hosting numerous serious motorcycle travelers, adventure riders and meetings throughout the year. The Inn and Restaurant is the official distributor of Golden Triangle motorbike souvenir T-shirts as well as the main outlet for the latest and freshest printed maps and GPS SD cards for The Golden Triangle (North Thailand) and Nan areas that McCollum and I wanted to explore on small-displacement motorcycles.
McCollum selected a 125cc 2012 Honda Wave Fi from his fleet while I opted for an older 130cc Kawasaki Kaze ZX130 for our adventure bikes. Both of us knew we might look like gorillas on footballs piloting the smaller motorcycles but we were committed to making an extended road trip on rides similar to those being used by the local population, to taste the environment as the natives did.
The agreed upon goal was to ride the famed Nan 1148 road in an area of Thailand known as The Golden Triangle. Our advisors had taken the criteria of remote riding areas, significant elevation changes, curves, and scenic riding to arrive at what many adventure riders submit was the best motorcycling road in Thailand. The surrounding environment could give us three to five days of both on- and off-road riding, terrain typifying what many locals experience aboard their small displacement mounts.
(Above) Ready for adventure, the loaded Kawasaki ZX130 and adventure seeking pilot at departure. (Below) Adventure riding buddy Jeffrey McCollum and his 125cc 2012 Honda Wave F1. Both he and I are over 6 feet tall and weigh in or around 200 lbs. Big boys on little toys or gorillas on footballs?
We easily stayed with the flow of traffic out of our starting point of Chiang Mai. Splitting lanes and driving alongside slow moving or stopped traffic gave us an immediate appreciation for our smaller motorcycles, which could thread the stalled traffic needle whereas our bigger bikes would have been stuck with us atop sucking exhaust fumes from diesel burning buses and trucks. Once we were clear of city traffic our top speed of 60 mph was enough to keep up with highway traffic, although we hugged the inside of the lanes or drove on the shoulders when a faster moving vehicle would overtake us. Several times we had close calls when vehicles passing us cut in sharply, reminding us that the bigger the vehicle the larger the right to the road, or so apparently felt the drivers.
At the beginning of the 1148 we stopped at a village gas station which was a tin covered shed that housed two 50-gallon drums of undetermined octane fuel. The gas was pumped by hand into our tanks. My single-cylinder Kawasaki with a 3.8-liter tank was rated with a 10:1 compression ratio. Published technical specifications said it could use unleaded gasoline of 91 octane level or above, which was the minimum we found anywhere and often the only octane available. As we were filling up in the village I wondered what my manly BMW riding pal would do in a similar location with his motorcycle wanting higher octane juice.
We drove the 80 kilometers of the 1148 both directions. On the west to east run we did not pass another car coming at us or going the same direction. The road was ours alone, absent of any traffic. A few chickens, dogs and one pig kept us from being lulled into thinking we could toss caution to the wind, but on many of the curves we could cut corners with a clear field of vision well ahead, often through two or three curves.
As I approached one sharp downhill curve I saw a black tar snake in my projected apex and thought “That’s odd. First tar snake I’ve seen on this road.” As I eased off the front brake and shifted my body weight trying to change the apex to go around instead of over it I saw it slithering into my new apex. It was no tar snake! It was a cobra, long enough to stretch across one lane of the two lane road.
(Above) Nicely cambered and banked curves made the 1148 one of the top motorcycling roads in Asia, described by one enthusiast as “tire sliding knee dragging fun.” (Below) The Kawasaki ZX130’s brakes easily handled the high speed downhill curves of the 1148. The motorcycle driver in the photograph had not overshot the curve, as driving in Thailand was on the left side of the road.
As my motorcycle thumped over the monster I lifted both feet off the foot pegs and in a most unmanly way screamed loudly. I felt the thump-thump of both wheels through my hands. The thickness of the serpent was enough to bounce my back end off the air cushioned seat.
I was afraid of only two things in my adventure seeking, those being snakes and sharks. In my youth I had foolishly driven a motorcycle over a rattlesnake that flipped under the rear fender and ended up flapping against my lower leg. That memory had me tossing all caution to the wind, forgetting about apexes, controlled braking and lean angle. The possibility of driving off the 1148 road became a friendly possibility while the snake became my unfriendly and foremost concern.
The heavily burdened ZX130 bounced and wobbled but stayed upright. I cleared the curve with both feet in the air. Had McCollum been following me instead of leading he would have had quite a show of derring-do.
When we met up at the bottom of the mountain I was near to passing out from having been screaming and hyperventilating for the past mile. McCollum said, “You must have really liked that section, there’s excitement spittle all over your face shield.”
As my heart beat slowed I managed to say, “Did you see that f****** snake back there!” It was not a question, but more a statement, said with additional spit landing on my face shield.
When we rode the 1148 in the reverse direction I was less adventurous in the curves, especially those near the one where had been the cobra. The ride was still high in the adventure scale, maybe more so from the anticipatory adrenal gland juice flowing. The smoothness of the pavement, elevation changes, tight curves and scenery made the 1148 ride one of the best I had made in the prior year.
On earlier rides I had used a BMW1200, Yamaha XT600, Kawasaki KLX250 and Kawasaki KMX200 to enjoy the 1148. However, after this ride it seemed that as the motorcycle displacement had decreased the fun factor of riding the 1148 increased.
McCollum and I returned to Chiang Mai and bought our motorcycle specific souvenir Nan 1148 T-shirts. While we were recounting our adventures to, from and during the 1148 ride, we found ourselves reflecting on how much fun we had riding the smaller motorcycles. The adventuring had included some jungle trail riding where the machete I had strapped on my motorcycle seat was used. We also experienced some high-speed highway riding that found us being nearly wind blown off the road by buses that passed us pushing air ahead and sideways at their 70-80 mph. The mountain curves through the jungles of The Golden Triangle and Nan area had tested our riding skills and the management of the braking systems on our motorcycles, which were better suited for commuter traffic in the city. Of course, in my adventure meter red zone was the episode with the snake, one that I tried to push off my adventure seeking gray matter memory card.
Been there, rode that road, got the T-shirt, here being a souvenir T-shirt from the www.GT-Rider.net website.
To add cream to our road trip we slept in clean and comfortable hotel and motel rooms with hot showers for $8-$10 per night, ate Thai food three times a day and found our favorite ice cream bars and cola whenever we stopped. On the downside was the price of petrol, about $4 per gallon. Offsetting the price of gasoline was the fact that our motorcycles were managing 60 mpg.
As McCollum and I parted I said, “That was a great adventure, going native.”
McCollum nodded and replied, “That must have been one of the best rides of my life. When do we do the Vespa scooter adventure ride?”