Northern Thailand in 3 days at 14000 revs.

Feb 28, 2007
(1800 words) Here is an account of my recent stay in and around CM. This is a colour piece, rather than a roads review. I kept to the well known roads so I didn’t want to repeat info on the routes here. I want to try and capture some of my experience in Thailand for the uninitiated, like I was just a short while ago.

On my return trip to the UK from NZ during the first week of March, I wanted to go somewhere for a different biking experience. Singapore was reportedly too bureaucratic to allow foreigners to hire or buy bikes, India seemed to me too dangerous and besides I didn't fancy riding an Enfield with its brakes and gears the wrong way round. Thailand, famous for its moral and atmospheric pollution seemed the only choice. I was initially skeptical, but after a brief bit of research on the 'net I discovered there is a thriving appreciation of motorcycling and reportedly good roads. The GT-Rider website gave me all the information I needed, particulary contact with David Unkovich and John at Jonadda Guest House.

I turned up late one Friday, having organised to stay at Jonadda for 2 nights. The rooms were spotless and comfortable. I hired a CB750 from Mr Mechanic for 2 days of local exploring, and then a Honda 400 Super Four from Tony's Big Bikes for a three day tour of the north, including Nan, the Doi Phukka Loop, Chiang Khong, Mae Sai and views across the borders into Laos and Burma, as well as a night in traditional style huts on the banks of the Mekong River.

First impressions of Chaing Mai were defined by the presence of a smoky smog hanging over the city. The lack of rain and wind meant the smoke from the country-wide burning of leaves had not dispersed. It also meant my pictures were constantly hazy and by the end of the week I had a chest cough. I would definitely return however.

The 33 degree heat made leathers uncomfortably hot but they have to be worn. Whilst everyone rides scooters, the locals don't even wear helmets, let alone jackets or even shoes sometimes. So when I pulled up at the front of the queue waiting for green at the traffic light GP, I get stared by about 15 other riders, probably for being on a bike which is 500% more powerful, or perhaps because I am wearing 500% percent more clothes. If anyone does wear a helmet it is a locally available brain-bucket which looks like a Fireman Sam item from the dressing up box and offering about the same amount of protection.

I would nod to my competitors at the start line, quietly confident that I was about to take pole position. It is like being part of a motorcycle gang, hooning our way through traffic, round cars, through gaps that London couriers would balk at. That said, people do use their mirrors and indicators. And the horn is useful too. What looks like two lane roads is actually at least five lanes. If there is a gap there is a lane. And it is remarkable good fun.

On the first day of the three day tour I headed to Nan, a small provincial town in the north east of Thailand. I left Chiang Mai later than I wanted to so I ended up riding in the dark. This is not normally recommended because of variable road surfaces, not to mention stray animals. However, the road was particularly good so I pushed on carefully.

The smoky haze got worse as I headed east. As it got dark the fires seemed to rage. I passed numerous still burning by the roadside, giving better illumination to the corners than the headlight on the Honda.

The Super Four sounded fantastic, handled brilliantly, but was restricted to about 75mph. And it was a bit small and gave me cramped knees. After only 4 hours in the saddle, I noticed that I had nappy rash from the chafing of underwear in hot leathers.

In Nan I went out for a meal which turned out to be a cross between a fondue party and a personal barbecue. I was seated at a table and was presented with raw meat. This worried me a little until I was also presented with a bucket of hot flaming coals, which was covered with a special pan on which I could barbecue my choice of meat, squid and veg at the same time as pouring hot water into the trough of the pan to make soup from lettuce, green herbs and pork fat. The most surprising element of the meal was the green ice cream garnished with sweet corn and kidney beans.

After, I headed back to The Amazing Guest house (that is actually its name) and slept for a couple of hours before the time-dyslexic cockrell began his morning at about 1am and continued to holler and squawk every 10 minutes until about 7am when he went quiet. I hope someone went out and showed him the cleaver. Who knows. But I had slept enough to ride well and left for day two.

Day Two took me to the border between Thailand and Laos, via the Doi Phukka Loop. I rode for 9 hours covering some of Thailand’s most excellent roads. I was told this would be good but I didn't really expect it to be this good.

The tarmac was like a Grand Prix race circuit in places. The curves so much more enjoyable on the little 400cc bike revving madly like an angry bumble bee, sounding like it is way over the limit but which in fact isn't doing much over 100kph. It is bizarre, zooming through corners with scenery out of Platoon but with advertising.

I passed through numerous peasant villages and quite a few towns. The noise of the bike attracts some attention, people mostly stare at what I can only imagine is as alien and unusual as their faces suggest. The noise, the bike, the leathers, the helmet, the boots... I can see them trying to process it in the brief seconds as I pass by. I often wave at kids, many of whom are trying so hard to compute that they don't even wave back. Kids everywhere wave back, unless they are looking in disbelief at a spaceman.

That evening was spent in Chiang Khong which is reassuringly touristy with a huge choice of places to stay. The Bamboo Guest House offered traditional style whicker huts on the bank of the Mekong river running along the border of Laos and Northern Thailand. The huts have bathrooms and beds and the walls are thin. The food provided on site was outstanding and wide ranging. I had Mexican and talked to a Swiss couple who were heading over to Laos the next day. Everyone staying in C-K seems to be heading over to Laos the next day. The Swiss couple were envious of the bike and the freedom it gives to explore and see places that are off the beaten track. I smiled smugly and appreciated again the fact that I get to see so much wider a view of places from the back of a bike. That is why we do this, isn’t it?

As the sun went red and disappeared over the hazy Mekong I began to plan the next day, which didn’t turn out as I had intended.

Day three: I followed the border towards the Golden Triangle, the point where Laos, Burma and Thailand meet. There I photographed a few enormous statues, each presumably celebrating the actual point of the Triangle, and therefore suggesting that people disagree where the actual point is or which monument is best to view that point through.

Then a simple ride up through some amazing hills turned into a bit of a trek which almost landed me in Burma. Where the 1130 turns into the 1234 there is an army check point and the road goes straight on or left. I needed to go left to keep heading west, but, put off by three chunky guys with M16s, I fought the intimidation of the moment with some bravado, and in my best Thai accented English, asked which was the way to Fang by simply using the word Fang and gesturing straight ahead. I was enthusiastically responded to, which must mean I am correct, it is straight ahead. So I eased through and focused down again on the twisties. Mae Solong seemed a long time coming. I realized this when the stunning tarmac road suddenly ran out. It didn’t deteriorate into potholes, then gravel. It just stopped, ended in a perfect perpendicular line just round a bend which proceeded in to a steep muddy rutted climb. I had heard of this happening on the 107. Was I there already?

After negotiating the steep ruts on the Honda I was very definitely lost. I was approached by a villager "You want go in?" Damn, that's not good news, go in where? Is that another country ahead?

I showed the villager the map and he seemed not to know where he was either. But he tried to read it anyway and I established after 5 seconds that I needed to turn around. 3 minutes later he was still reading the map along with 4 other helpers. But I extracted it and turned around and descended the rutted muddy road back to the tarmac.

I stopped at the guard post again to ask another soldier, who could tell me where I actually was which was all I needed to know.

The road I should have been on was indeed as fantastic as I had been promised by John and it eventually led through to Fang. I seemed to be the only white person in town. I found a local inn which gave me the best night sleep since I arrived in Thailand and grabbed some local noodle soup.

By this point the bike's starter motor had packed up so I was jump starting it in first gear which was easy when hot. First thing in the morning was a different matter. I roped in the guesthouse manager who, watched helpfully by at least 4 others, pushed me by himself around the forecourt until I managed to pump enough fuel in and start it.

The return leg from Fang to Chiang Mai was easy and uneventful. Three solid days at 12,000 rpm had taken its toll. Some replacement knees and some replacement lungs would have been nice. But despite this, I would not hesitate in returning. I would have liked to have visited hilltribes on the bike, seen further down the Burmese border, maybe even hired Tony’s CBR1000 and taken some fast roads to the other big towns and cities. That would definitely cause a stir with the peasants. His CBR 1000 might be the only one in the country. It even looks like a spaceship. I am trying to find the Thai English dictionary. How do you say "My name is Buzz Lightyear, I come in peace"?

Thanks again to John and David. Thailand was a completely unknown quantity which I presumed to be inaccessible but the GT Rider forum made it accessible and friendly and I had a great biking experience. I will be back.