Motorcycle Touring in Northern Thailand
Northern Thailand is one of the most rewarding regions for motorcycle riding in the world. The experience can be summed up as:
Great vistas, fun twisties, breathtaking culture made easy and affordable.
Chiang Mai now offers a large selection of motorcycles for rent, from small scooters to big bikes over 1000cc. As there are several international makers building bikes in Thailand (including Ducati, Kawasaki and BMW), big-bike prices are now comparable to those in western countries.
The parts supply is also very good as Thailand has in recent years built a supply-chain for motorcylcle production that was already in place for cars.
This makes it feasible for rental companies to buy and maintain big bikes while renting them out for reasonable rates. For example, a Kawasaki Versys 650 can be rented for around 1500 Baht (now ~ 50 US$) per day.
Unlike at the beginning of the century, there is absolutely no need to bring your own big bike into Thailand.
The road network in Northern Thailand is now excellent. Most highways have now been re-surfaced several times and are stable. However, landslides still occur in the North, especially in the rainy season.
Still, there is hardly any traffic once you get into the mountains. Especially the Chiang Mai-Pai-Mae Hong Son-Mae Sariang loop is very quiet while the roads are excellent.
On the other hand, the valley around Chiang Mai has become very busy. In addition, the ring roads are dangerous, as authorities allow more and more businesses to be established on these very busy road. In-and-out parking traffic often interferes with moving traffic. This is very dangerous and will only become more so in coming years.
Other attractions include:
- A pleasant, cool climate during the dry season, cool nights outside of Chiang Mai even in the "hot season" at higher altitudes,
- great landscapes with green hills and rocky mountains, lakes, flower-fields, and tranquil forests,
- ancient cultures are alive in interesting hill tribe villages,
- a frontier- and border feel with slowly-opening Burma just across the hill,
- superb and cheap roadside accommodation and food,
- golden Buddhas greeting from mountain tops.
Road cover has greatly improved over the last few years. The Royal Thai Government has always made the construction of road infrastructure a priority so that today Northern Thailand has some of the best roads in Southeast-Asia.
And since many mountains are sacred and their spiritual inhabitants must not be disturbed, roads are not drilled through the mountain but carefully meandered around them. This makes for the largest collection of twisties anywhere. So, when renting a bike go for the lighter, smaller one, big bikes can easily be overwhelmed by the curves which diminishes the fun.
Traffic in the mountain areas outside the city of Chiang Mai is very scarce with just a few lorries, pick-up trucks and buses carrying local produce and transporting people. On the amazing road from Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son you most likely won't encounter more than a dozen cars over a stretch of a hundred miles.
Motorcycling is great year-round. The rainy season is certainly rainy, but downpours don't last very long and after a short break you're ready to go on.
**The unparalleled service-quality of Thai hospitality can be experienced for a handful of Baht in the smallest village along the road. So you can stop anywhere and get tasty food and good accommodation at very low prices.
Loops are the format of choice. Their length ranges from 100 to well over 700 km (60 - 500 miles) and give you respective riding times of 2 hours to 3 days minimum.
Actually the ubiquitous scooters whizzing around Chiang Mai are perfectly good vehicles for multi-day tours in the mountains. They now all have disk brakes, reasonable lighting and automatic transmission.
Thanks to the much improved road cover in recent years, they have to be considered safe and reliable touring vehicles. That they can be fixed at any corner, even in rural mountain villages, is an added bonus.
Bigger Bikes used to be far less common in the North than for example on Phuket island or in Pattaya. Recently however, Kawasaki, Honda, Ducati and other makers have started producing big bikes in Thailand and these machines have become a lot cheaper and more readily available (and serviceable) in Thailand.
The rental price for large bikes is 1200-2000 Baht per day. Make sure you thoroughly test your prospective bike, especially the brakes.
A popular addition in 2012 is the Honda CRF 250 L, a light, performant, offroad-capable bike perfect for touring in the North.
Offroad riding, however, takes more than a capable bike: it requires full-body protective gear, boots and gloves, as well as much experience. Offroad riding is not recommended for beginners: You may trash the bike and your body, making for an expensive stay in Thailand and trip home.
Due to the low rental costs and variety of bikes on offer, a stay in Thailand can also be a great opportunity to try out bikes you may want to buy at home.
Online and magazine reviews are usually too spec heavy (because in effect motorcyles are mature, hard-to-improve products), and nothing replaces a multi-day hands-on experience with a particular bike.