Border run madness-Mae Salong-Chiang Mai


Oct 23, 2003
Visa Run

Ice hockey is a dangerous activity-my CBR900 riding buddy for this month's visa run to Mae Sai had incapacitated himself on the ice. Strung out on painkillers, he called me on the Saturday morning when we were due to leave to excuse himself.

The trip was already going badly however. I had spent 2 hours the previous day looking for a hire bike in Chiang Mai that could handle the trip. Having already used a TDM850, a CB400 Super Four and a 125 Sonic for the trip, I had an idea of what I wanted. The TDM was lively but had a fuelling glitch when flat out and cornered like an old oil tanker. The Sonic was a revelation in terms of handling and braking, but 500k's on Honda's finest 4 stroke 125 single cylinder was a liberty up the mountains and down long straights. Jaguar's only VTEC 400 seems to have been sold, and the rest of the 400's there are knackered. So I chose a 400 from Mr Mechanic (after trying at least 3 others). This less than fine example at least had a Brembo up front and a nasty but loud (they can hear you coming) aftermarket pipe out back, complete with homemade meccano style exhaust bracket.

I always take my chosen bike up Doi Suthep the night before heading to the border to give it (and myself) a shake down. Returning home with a oil/coolant covered right boot, this bike had been caned once too often with no TLC. Mrs Mech gave me the full refund no questions asked, and I popped over the moat to pick up Lek's TDM with maxxed out rear shock-it’s solid! Then my buddy called and blew me out (pussy ice hockey players) - the gods were out to wreck my trip.

But a quick call to the motorcycle guardian of the Golden Triangle, and I had a buddy to hook up with in Mae Sai. Dave Unk, on a trip with another buddy on a brand new TDM (Lek, you listening, NEW!), was in Chom something near Laos en route to Mae Sai. We scheduled a lunch time rendezvous and at 11 am I left Chiang Mai with a smile.

I guess most of you are familiar with the CM-Chiang Rai route, but I still can't get over how mind-blowing parts of it are. The mountain pass just outside CM and again just before CR are up there with bits of the Route Napoleon in France, where the road winds from Grenoble, through the Gorge Verdun and the Central Massif on its way to the sea. With no sports bike to exploit the killer sweepers, gradients and camber, and the TDM's fuelling/suspension (tyre, brakes, etc) problems, you can't cane it the whole time. There are still a few corner combinations that are flat out, and it’s surprising just how quick you can persuade an oil tanker to change direction.

The 2nd set of sweepers, just before the straight road to CR, is only maybe 20k, but alone is worth the ride. Very little traffic, and only one small mountain town to cause you to throttle off, this the most open and best tarmaced road I’ve seen here (or most places). Drawbacks? It’s over too quickly, so turn around and do it again. BTW if you do this trip, fuel up in CM then again when you are clear of the 2nd set of mountains, about 130k total. The mountains are more fun on a light fuel load rather than full up and slopping round on a big tall TDM.

The satisfaction of the mountains is soon nulled by the tedium (on the TDM) of the straight CR-Mae Sai stretch,traffic, traffic lights, brain dead truck drivers, etc. The looming presence of Doi Tung is welcome, and I always ride past it thinking one day I'll figure out a path up its impassive slopes. Anyway, I made MS at 1.15 pm, 2 hours 15 mins, my quickest time-mainly as it hadn't rained.

Dave's new TDM mate had bailed, sensibly knocking the prospect of a night time return trip. We spent too long shopping for CD/DVD's, ate, and left the border at 4.30 pm. Dave was getting lively with his GPS and the plan was to take the long route home, via Doi Mae Salong, Tha Ton and Mae Rim. He promised me a ride to blow my mind.

35 k out of MS, we refuelled and hooked a hard right, into the mountains again, maybe even up Doi Tung. Dave warned me the road was tight, twisty and scenic. He wasn't wrong-the uber picturesque route snaked along the border ridges. I usually try to avoid night rides on unlit roads through mountains, so have never really seen the effect that a setting sun has on miles of unspoilt undulating landscape-the hues of green and shadow contrasts enhancing the contours and vegetation. Yet another mountain paradise near the border to distract you from the injustices going on only k's away in Myanmar.

Maybe 30 mins riding and a few peaks later we arrived at Mae Salong. A dusty town, remote and at altitude, again I was reminded of the Route Napoleon towns of Castellane, etc., quiet oases of calm to break up the hectic mountain sprints. There were another 15 or so motorbikes in town refuelling, spotless, tricked up NC30s and GSXR400's with MotoGP paintjobs and funky bodywork, the perfect tool for a well surfaced twisty road. How unfortunate for them then that the road soon turned into a dirt track for 10ks of downhill, with damp sections thrown in. With a few off road rides behind me, I managed to keep the front light and find some grip. That section was fun, but it was light and mainly dry. I wouldn't fancy it otherwise unless I had a dirt bike on fat tyres.

Emerging out of the mountain shadows, we slowed down for Ban Tha Ton. Maybe it was the respite from the demanding descent, but this place felt a bit special. A huge stone Buddha rising above the hillside gazed down on us as we crossed the river in twilight. I made a mental note to return here.

As the darkness surrounded us, the madness begun. Puppies played chicken with my wheels as kids laughed inches from the roadside; unlit roads leading into small towns felt like roulette Russian style as scooters, invisible without lights through my fly encrusted visor, dived in all directions across our path. Unlike me, Dave took it all in his stride, i.e. I hardly saw him brake once. I gave up proper road riding 2 years ago in the UK, realising the race track was safer than public roads. A trip to Doi Inthanon (during the carnage that is Son Kran) had taught me that Thai roads at night are a bit 'ting tung'.

The highlight/lowlight depending on your POV-just aoutside Fang, kids playfully firing rockets inches from the ground at passing traffic, from behind the pumps in a gas station, next to a police checkpoint. Nice. Is this the land of smiles then? We rode through Fang, equally insane, and I was reminded of the two college kids that had recently bought a Kalashnikov for B1000. On their arrest for the murder of 3 students, they said they just wanted to make sure the shooter worked. You could say I was feeling a bit vulnerable.

So when the road disappeared again into the darkness of the mountains, I was relieved. Hopefully our only adversary up here was the hairpins our headlights couldn't shine round. Getting into a rhythm again, we made pretty rapid progress through the trees. The only potential slip up was a patch of standing water out of sight on an apex. I felt the front wheel slide just a bit, stayed on the gas, and hoped Dave had made it through too ('course he had, he probably barely noticed). Dropping back out of the hills for the last time, we passed some frantically waving torches, a stationary vehicle in need of a new windshield and a stretcher complete with lifeless body being casually chucked into a pick up truck. Ouch. Karma, rice whisky and roads on a Saturday night in northern Thailand don't mix.

30 minutes later we were home, and my mind turned to a glass of red, checking my new CDs and Sunday’s MotoGP. All good rides have an element of danger, of dealing with the unpredictable. I hadn't counted on suicidal dogs and kids letting off rockets at us, but I had seen the sun set on Doi Tung as noble Buddha kept his eye on us through Ban Tha Ton. That's got to beat mashing up your back on the ice rink.


Jan 20, 2003
What color/year was that new TDM? Who was riding it?

There are not that many around, and I hope that nobody had mine out for a shakedown cruise, while I am stuck in the USA!!!



Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Ah yes, thought you might ask; not sure exactly where it came from or what colour it was. But it was last seen heading back into Tom & Jerry's drive way.........................

Keep the power on


Jan 20, 2003
Looks like those new glasses of yours did not cure the selective color blindness. The memory loss is nothing new.

I know the milage on the bike - I will have to charge T&J for the rental fee. 50 baht per kilometer sound fair?

And I am sure that it smoked a certain Africa Twin.