Chiang Mai - Mae Sai - Chiang Dao Loop

Discussion in 'Northern Thailand - Road Trip Reports' started by monoplex, May 25, 2005.

  1. monoplex

    monoplex Active Member

    In the summer 2004, quite oblivious to the thriving Internet Chiang Mai biking community, I flew from London, UK, hired a bike from Mr Mechanic and spent many happy days driving through Northern Thailand. I travelled alone but sent regular emails to a biker mate stranded at home writing up for his postgrad. degree. It is only in the last couple of weeks that I have finally discovered this website and was encouraged by David to submit a riders report.

    So, here it is, at least for one of the trips. At the time, my travelling emails formed a kind of blog and I use them again here but with additional annotations such as place names, changes of tense and route numbers. This may explain some of the hiatus present in the prose.

    Chiang Mai is a very long way from London and it doesn’t help to find that, after travelling all day towards the night on arrival, the sun greets you bright and early and you spend a whole day waiting to go to bed. My plan was no plan and since Chiang Mai and Thailand were new to me I would find my bearings on foot before testing my jet lag in traffic. My best decisions are always made when I’m stationary and so I spent the next few days staying at the Diamond Riverside Hotel, exchanging my jet lag for sunburn and observing the modus vivendi on the streets of Chiang Mai.

    Unlike the UK, the traffic seems not to be guided by the markings on the road, the street signs or even traffic lights but appears to be governed by the same kind of principle employed by flocking birds. You can do what you like - just don't bump into your neighbour. This includes changing lane at random, going against the traffic flow on incredibly busy roads and driving on the pavement. Nobody gets angry, jumps on the horn or plays chicken; they just get out of the way - if they see you and they expect the same of you. Very few people wear a helmet that is worth spit and you often see them worn American GI style with the strap dangling. Wearing a hard hat is more a mechanism for deflecting a police fine than the road. It seems that everyone has at least a small bike but you know that can't be true as you often see them hurtling down the road with three passengers including whole families with babe-in-arms. It was not uncommon to see girls modestly sitting pillion sidesaddle. When it rained, out came the umbrellas, which unless there was a passenger, made driving a one handed affair. But it all looked great fun and driving is what I came to do.

    There is no shortage of bike hire places and for my first trip I settled for a single cylinder 200cc Honda Phantom from Mr Mechanic.


    They were out of CB750s that day and it was a little bit smaller than I’m used to as I’ve only owned sports bikes since passing my test but it was in good condition, drove sweetly and was very nimble. Larger easy-rider types were available but it always feels strange to ride a heavy bike where my feet are in front of my knees. I can’t drive a car so the armchair position of road control is completely alien. Mr Mechanic now have a website and their range of machines appears greater than it did standing on the pavement last summer. I can recommend them.

    A precursor to pleasure is always anticipation; food, sex and payday to name a few and before departing London I had already bought David’s most excellent map of North Thailand. I love maps, charts and technical drawings in general. Their abstraction and symbology speak volumes to me and I was keen to translate the promise into reality. Choosing the route for the first trip was easy; it had to be north. With wonderful names like Golden Triangle, tales of border towns, opium smuggling and gun running it was easy to convince myself that I was setting off on some great solo adventure. And so it turned out, although not from the frisson of imagined danger but from the sheer beauty and isolation of the landscape and the friendliness of the people. Chiang Rai was to be my first destination.

    It was an easy run up Route 118 although I was a little unsure whether it was expected of me to drive in the demarked lane for bikes. I was maintaining a pace commensurate to most other traffic and the lane often was littered with debris from the road edge. Braking, cornering and dust don’t always combine to an agreeable conclusion and so I risked the displeasure of other drivers by taking up proper road position and moving over as necessary. Perhaps experienced bikers of Thailand would care to comment on this strategy.

    Insofar that there was no plan, I had mentally established some general rules. I would stop whenever I felt like it and take on board water and fuel. Everything I had read about Thailand beforehand had indicated that the best months for clement weather had passed and I would be slogging through the August heat and humidity. Too true, for a fair, pale skinned, Scottish ferang like me I sweated buckets that the already saturated air refused to absorb. Still, like a sauna, perhaps it was cathartic despite the fact, when I finally stopped for the day; I looked as if I had been dragged through a hedge backwards. And that brings me to a second general rule; during my travels I would stay overnight in the best hotel I could find. In the UK, staying at luxury hotels is way beyond my means but not so in Thailand. Besides, I loved pitching up looking like Stig of the Dump in a beautiful hotel surrounded by suits with silver luggage. The staff always viewed me with amused and friendly curiosity that increased when I made it back down to reception freshly scrubbed and laundered. My Lonely Planet guidebook ‘Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand’ had made issue of being respectful and respectable and so I had brought clothes that were smartish and easily serviced daily. I’m not sure if the Rohan brand is international but for travelling practicality, put to the test many times, I can recommend it without reservation.

    To help myself keep organised I had prepared a kind of data book comprising comb bound photocopies of documents; passport, airport entry visa, driving licence, medical insurance, bike hire, travellers cheque receipts and important UK and Thai phone numbers (Embassy, family etc). My UK biker pal also had a copy in case there were desperate phone calls to be made. Nothing calamitous did happen but it proved its worth with everyday usage.

    The Wiang Inn Hotel, Chiang Rai provided my first stopover. My room was fairly small but comfortable and well appointed. The rest of the hotel had many facilities with a large foyer and later in the evening, piano music. In a way, all very cheesy but later I sat at the bar with my map and exchanged gentle small talk about the locality over drinks with the bar tender.

    After the body buzz of driving had worn off I wandered into town and found the night market where I tried to choose a meal comprising fauna of four legs or fewer. Thai food is delicious and I did spot a dish containing disarticulated insect limbs. Happily, there were no gastric twitches later and the next day I felt fine except for a strange desire to scuttle under the bed when someone put on the light.

    By now I had learnt a thing or two about managing the bike and my luggage. I had been carrying my stuff in a small rucksack - too small really. Before leaving Chiang Rai I bought a bigger bag for less than UK 5 pounds and some bike bungees for 7p each. Carrying the bag on my back when driving was giving me backache due not only to the weight but also the drag. So, it got strapped onto the luggage rack and I looked ready to tour.

    I headed further north along Route 1 towards Mea Sai which is a gateway town at the Burmese border. I couldn't cross because the bike hire shop had my passport. I wasn't too bothered about that because I could imagine the same kind of market stands and queues on the other side. If you wanted to buy some cheap 'designer' sunglasses or a telescope then this was the place. It was very sunny so the radiation heat was terrific and I took care to stock up on water and eat although I didn't much feel like it.

    This was virtually the most northern point in Thailand so I could only turn around and go south. My Lonely Planet guide book made small mention of an interesting route between two towns, Doi Mae Salong and Tha Ton connected by a paved road but "treacherous" in the rainy season. It was then the rainy season and the description was like a red rag to bull - I mean what more encouragement does a biker need? What a drive! The road was narrow, convoluted and at times very, very steep. It reminded me of the alpine hairpin bends I had seen crossing the Pyrenees between Spain and France but this time it was flanked by jungle not snow. Sometimes I was in bright sunshine and sometimes in cloud. I stopped and changed in and out of my rain gear twice (it was torrential) and at other times I was above the cloud. I hadn't realised before but the geology of Thailand is still active. There were huge outcrops of forest-covered rocks and occasionally, in the distance, thermal vents spewing hot springs and steam. On cresting rises, I would get marvellous vistas of verdant panoramas with the clouds stratifying in layers below me.

    The route was tricky and challenging but wonderful. I had to work the bike quite a bit but didn't feel my UK bike (ZZR600)


    would have been much better. As I found when touring Europe in similar terrain on the ZZR, you have to keep your nerve when leaning it over round a 180 degree bend which is getting progressively tighter and steeper. You have to believe the torque will pull you round because changing gear very rapidly dumps the momentum and you can't just put your foot out to keep it upright or even stop or it will be on its side. Well, there are only two kinds of biker: those that have fallen off and those that have yet to.

    There were no such difficulties with the Phantom. Its relative small size was an advantage and I had a lot of confidence putting it about on the road. Where the ZZR wins is on the long stretches of flat road. I wasn’t tempted to go much faster as the climate of locomotion around Thailand appears to be fairly sedentary but it would have been nice to cruise at 50 or 60mph without the single cylinder throbbing through my feet. At a benign 6000rpm, the ZZR does nearly 80mph.

    The overall route was quite arduous and I took about 4 hours, stopping for the usual contemplation of the scenery and torrential rain shower. It was during one of the rain breaks that I was completely enchanted by a quartet of small children lining up in front of me, with schools books held out like sheet music, happily chanting in unison the days of the week in English. I don’t know why but it really touched my heart and the memory can still bring a happy tear to my eye.

    Anyway, I’m a biker. Specifically, from Mai Sai I travelled south along Route 1, turned west onto Route 1130, continued along Route 1234 to Mae Sa Long continuing to Tha Ton and then onto Route 1089 to Fang.


    The plan was to stay in Fang but here my navigation failed me and I missed it not realising until I found myself on Route 107. I couldn't seem to spot any accommodation, decent or otherwise, so I pressed on scanning for roadside hotels. It was about 7.00pm and getting dark with still nothing in sight. I had forgotten that lower equatorial latitudes meant a much shorter twilight.

    The small problem for me is that if the hotel is not signed in English I have no idea it's there, as the Thai language doesn't use roman script. By this time, I was a bit unsure of my location and driving was becoming difficult, constantly scanning with a tinted visor as dusk fell. The air was full of flying insects and so I made the decision to stop at the next garage, fill up and be prepared to continue driving carefully until I reached Chiang Mai. I felt this was the important thing - to make a decision and not fret about where to stay. I needed to concentrate on driving as I was still in the mountains on Route 107 and it was becoming pitch dark.

    A few years ago, in California, I learnt to fly light aircraft and I felt this situation was very much the same kind of thing. I had been taught that indecision is what leads to compounded mistakes and now I certainly felt better. Chiang Mai was about 120 Km away, perhaps 2 or 3 hours so, at the worst, I would be checking into a hotel at about 11pm. Perhaps I'm making a big deal (and the next day it did seem a different world) but then in the dark, with no signs that made sense and after driving all day, it was good to be positive. Well, I drove for about another hour up and down and then suddenly I shot past the Chiang Dao Hill Resort. A quick U-turn later and I was negotiating a bed for the night at 500 Baht (about UK 6.80 pounds).

    Finally, off the bike I felt wrecked and couldn't quite make sense of the accommodation. From the hotel reception it was a hike in the dark and mud until I reached a rattan woven and thatched little house. It was quite spartan inside without aircon or tv and mosquito screens on the windows. Given that it was in the countryside you might have expected it to be silent but every nearby bush vibrated with wildlife and there was an unseen river and small waterfall. The trek to the hut involved passing a closed restaurant but I was told they would fix something for me to eat. And they did, they opened the restaurant, offered me the menu, cooked my order, closed it when I had finished and then everyone went off to bed. I kind of didn't like the look of the place, as it was all a bit too rustic for me. The rain again began to fall in torrents adding to the noise and well, given my dislike of creepy crawlies, gastronomic or otherwise, I was a bit nervous about sleeping in a woven hut in a rain forest.

    I lay down on the bed and that was it, instant deep sleep until I got up about 7.00am and went outside to have a look at the weather. In the morning light it was a paradise.


    Little houses nestled in between trees surrounded by huge flowering bushes with a river (now visible) and timber walkways. The air was cool and fresh with the plants still dripping. Later on, the ground would steam when the direct sunlight reached it. Once again the restaurant was opened, I must have been the only resident, and then I was off once more.

    It was mid-morning and I was still heading south back to Chiang Mai. No pressure and a full tank so the map was consulted for the most interesting route. I choose Route 1150 east to Phrao and then south along Route 1001. It was a good drive but for the life of me I couldn’t spot the enormous reservoir that runs alongside the west side of Route 1001 just south of Nong Bua. In the afternoon in Chiang Mai, I booked into the Montri Hotel where previously I had sent a few emails in the presence of a latte and apple pie. It was fairly cheap at about UK 10 pounds a night, perhaps too cheap as the room looked a little worn but it was very central and there were big celebrations that night in honour of the Thai Queen's birthday. The restaurant was nice and I had been there a few times before for snacks but perhaps because the hotel falls into the 'reasonable' bracket in my guidebook it was full of westerners eating club sandwiches with fries and talking loudly on mobile phones. The next day I quietly folded my tent again and headed for somewhere else with a bit more class. No snobbery here, merely self-indulgence.

    Reading all of this, it might become apparent that its detail may be disproportionate but I collected sensations and sights about the comparative experiences of both driving a different bike and the fantastic scenery of completely different country. A product, I suppose, of spending all of the time driving on my own. Every day or so, much of it was chronicled in the form of emails. Had I travelled in a group I’m sure I would have had a different (fun) experience perhaps revolving around the shared antics and jokes with others. But just stopping anytime and anywhere I chose and looking, in incredible silence, across miles of mystical topography was awesome. I live in London remember.
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