Asia’s Adventure Riding Capital
For many experienced travellers, Thailand tends to conjure up visions of paradise lost. Images of once beautiful islands now sinking under the weight of sunburned day-trippers and trinket sellers.
Beyond the beaches, the cities are sadly, less famous for their amazing street food than they are for their spruikers, scams and traffic jams.
When tourism moves too fast, Thailand is what happens.
Is there any appeal left in Thailand for travellers with a desire for adventure?
Part of MotoDreamer’s mission is to pick parts of the globe still unspoiled by mass tourism, while avoiding becoming part of the problem.
It’s also our mission to take travellers to some of the most mind-blowing riding destinations the world has to offer.
In Southeast Asia, Northern Thailand wins hands down when it comes to sheer awesomeness of easily accessible riding, with superb sealed roads, sensational scenery and plenty of variety both on and off the road.
Northern Thailand has nothing like the overdevelopment that has devastated southern Thailand’s coasts. But that’s not to say it hasn’t entirely fallen victim to tourism of the most disappointing variety.
The north’s unofficial capital, Chiang Mai, is a travel hotspot. It never fails to amaze with the ancient beauty of its temple-lined streets, or the ethical indifference of scores of brochure-clutching tourists who embark every day on so-called “elephant safaris”.
Most of these elephant “camps” are just a few kilometres outside the city limits, home to vast swathes of forested hill country and fertile rice fields, fed by the tributaries of the mighty Mekong River.
With so much incredible scenery so close by, it’s easy to see why Chiang Mai is arguably where the story of adventure riding in South East Asia began.
Thailand – My First Motorcycle Touring Love
The first time I took off on a two-week adventure ride through Northern Thailand (my first long-distance ride anywhere in the world), I carried two travel guides with me.
Naturally, I lugged around that brick-in-a-backpack, the Lonely Planet, religiously. But my real bible turned out to be tiny enough to slip into a motorcycle jacket pocket.
A Motorcycle Guide to the Golden Triangle (published in 1998) by David Unkovich (aka the legendary GT Rider) was the key to unlocking a part of Thailand (a country I’d travelled and worked in for six months) I’d never before experienced.
For little more than a handshake and a few hundred baht a day, my partner and I hired a Honda CB400, escaped the tuk-tuk cluttered Chiang Mai streets and headed for the hills.
I remember the 400cc engine puffed and sputtered reluctantly as we climbed one incredibly steep highway, while scooter passengers jumped off the back to help push their riders up the hill.
We held our breaths as we rode through timeless landscapes – 2,500m high temple-topped mountains, monsoon rainforests and emerald rice fields. Everywhere we went we were met with surprise, curiosity, and cheerful welcomes.
That trip, I feel in love with motorcycle touring. I would never look at travel the same way again.
How Thailand Came to be a Motorcycle Touring Mecca
Two decades ago, while Thailand was in the midst of a global tourism boom, motorcycle travel in the country was in its DIY infancy, pioneered by adventurers like Unkovich, who mapped out hundreds of highways and backroads, just so other foreigners could experience Southeast Asia’s Holy Grail of motorcycle touring.
The wheels for moto-tourism to grow in popularity were already set in motion.
- Unlike most adventure riding destinations, Thailand’s tourist infrastructure was already well established, accessible to travellers on almost any budget
- Independent-minded visitors with a genuine interest in history, nature and culture needed a way to avoid the tourist traps and manufactured cultural attractions
- Motorbikes are the transport of choice in Thailand. They’re cheap, they’re everywhere, and back then, rules regarding hiring them to foreigners were vague and barely enforced.
Once a few entrepreneuring locals collecting sheds full of beat-up Hondas, ready to be rented to any foreigner who could stay upright from one end of the street to the other, Chiang Mai’s motorcycle touring culture was born!
Getting a bike and blasting away to freedom in Thailand was easy. But accessibility alone doesn’t make a place an epic motorcycling destination. Consider this:
Just a few kilometres outside of Chiang Mai are some of the most magical motorcycling routes on earth.
No traffic, silky smooth asphalt for days (perfect for pure pavement enthusiasts), friendly local towns with great cuisine, unique hill tribe culture, mystical mountains and untouched forest (all protected by decree of the King), and a endless network of hidden temples, caves, hot springs, waterfalls and ancient villages.
To get these places means to go where no tour company minivan goes – chasing cliff-hugging corners, taking seductive, high speed arcs in wide sweeps, blistering down steep ravines and bursting through clouds on hill ascents to the heavens.
Motorcycle Touring in Thailand Today – Same Same But Different?
It’s hard to imagine many other countries that have been transformed as rapidly by tourism than Thailand.
Yet, while development appears to continue unabated, some things remain the same.
Northern provinces like Nan and Mae Hong Son are some of the nation’s least industrialised, almost completely dominated by forests, rivers, rice paddies and rural villages.
Getting around by motorbike, you’ll discover that, save for a few mainly backpacker-dominated spots, most everywhere in the North is still basically off the beaten track.
But, moto-tourism culture in Thailand is certainly not what it once was.
The “anything goes” attitude is increasingly being looked down on by tour operators and authorities.
- If you’re scooting around on a 50cc moped without a valid motorcycle license at home, you’re riding illegally. The police do check for licenses occasionally especially if you’re doing something else illegal (yes, shirtless guy without a helmet, that means you!)
- Compulsory Third Party (CTP) insurance is required when renting a bike in Thailand. A good rental company will also offer additional third party and personal damage protection insurance
- Serious riders now have way more legit options, and are more likely to hire bikes from licensed tour companies that provide guided tours, well-maintained late model bikes and quality protective gear
We believe Thailand is one of the most amazing adventure riding destinations on earth, and in many ways, one of the most rider friendly.
However. Despite its enormous popularity as a riding destination, shockingly, Thailand is the most dangerous place in the world for motorcyclists, with more bike-related fatalities per year than any other country.
While these grim statistics almost entirely apply to locals, don’t be blindsided by being in tourist paradise. While most fatalities occur in or near dense urban areas, the tiny backpacker hamlet (population 2,300) of Pai in the North experiences dozens of motorcycle accidents per day, almost all tourists riding illegally.
Throughout the country, sub-standard training, drunk driving, dangerously defective vehicles and chaotic conditions in traffic are the norm.
Many Thai motorists seem to drive with a death wish and a reckless approach to other road users.
You could be riding a brand new MotoDreamer BMW F850GS and you’ll have Corolla taxis and 150cc pizza bikes attempting to pass you at top speed.
The lesson here: take absolutely no chances riding in Thai traffic – and get the hell out of the cities – quickly (and safely!))
Experienced Rider? Novice Tourer? Riding Thailand is for Everyone
So, is Thailand still the adventure riding paradise of decades past?
We say yes, absolutely!
Pretty much everything great about it is still great.
Thailand’s congested freeways are still sadly unsafe for riders. But it’s rare for experienced foreign road riders to get into trouble.
And with operators like MotoDreamer offering experienced guides, quality machines and a comprehensive safety checklist, moto-touring Thailand is arguably safer than ever.
You don’t have to be an off-road rally champion to experience some of the best adventure riding in the world.
From the exhilaratingly twisty mountain terrain, the serenity of the countryside and the warmth of the people, riding Northern Thailand will stoke a passion in your heart for “doing travel” differently. Just like it did with me.
Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)