It has been a dream of mine for years to go on a long motorcycle adventure throughout Northern Thailand. Ever since I first completed the Mae Hong Son loop in 2013, I’ve been dying to come back to Thailand for more riding. In February 2017, I fulfilled this dream by renting out a bike and riding 5,000 km over a period 19 days throughout every northern province.
In order to help others take part in the trip of a lifetime or just for those that are curious, I am going to use this post to discuss the logistics of my trip and break down my itinerary into smaller posts going into further detail on each destination.
I’ve previously lived in Thailand as an English teacher so I am much more familiar with Thai culture than most. When I lived there, I was extremely motivated to learn Thai language studying almost constantly. Now I speak with moderate fluency which certainly helped make things easier for me on this trip. Due to my language ability I was able to talk with local people and learn more about their lives, but this is by no means an impossible trip for those that do not speak Thai. I strongly recommend learning few phrases before going out though.
Day One – Got up early to rent my bike in Chiang Rai from Chiang Rai Big Bike Rentals as soon as the shop opened. I had been in Thailand for a couple days prior resting and recovering from jet lag before beginning this trip. On my first day, I drove to Nan stopping to see the White Temple, also known as Wat Rong Khun, just south of Chiang Rai.
Day Two – Explored Nan Province enjoying the Saturday night market and visiting the salt mining village, Ban Bo Kluea, and Doi Phu Kha National Park. My favorite part of Nan was eating pork fried with “makhwaen” at the Saturday night market. Makhwaen is a herb endemic to Nan giving the pork a unique flavor that can’t be found anywhere else in Thailand. After Nan I spent the next night in Phrae. Read my guide to Nan here detailing everything I did.
Day Three – Had an excellent dinner and breakfast at Chatwaran Homestay in Phrae then drove to Lampang to spend one evening. Learn about the best things to do in Lampang here. When I was an English teacher in Thailand, I lived in Lampang so I had a chance to visit some old friends while I was there.
Day Four – I left Lampang early in the morning driving through Uttaradit and Phitsanulok to get to Phetchabun spending the night just outside the beautiful and trippy modern temple called Wat Pha Sorn Kaew.
Day Five – I continued further to Loei Province to visit the beautiful Tham Erawan Cave . After the cave, I spent the night along the Mekong River in an old traditional wooden home in Chiang Khan. Laos was only just across the river so much of the food in Chiang Khan was Laotian. I had some wonderful jungle curry at a restaurant right along the river.
Day Six – Checked out early from Chiang Khan and drove to Phu Rua National Park to camp under the stars.
Day Seven – Traveled from Phu Rua National Park to Nakon Rachasima Province to visit the famed Khao Yai National Park. While Khao Yai had a lot of natural beauty, I thought it was a little over crowded with weekenders from Bangkok. I did see some famous places like this waterfall from the movie “The Beach”.
Day Eight – After a day at Khao Yai, I went west across Central Thailand to Kanchanaburi Province. It was rice fields like the one below for hours upon hours until I reached my destination.
Day Nine – I got a good night sleep in Kanchanaburi’s provincial capital before trekking deeper into the province first checking out Wat Tham Suea and then driving up to Sangkhlaburi to visit the famous Mon Bridge and eat delicious hill tribe food.
Day 10 – In the morning, I went up to the Burmese border crossing at Three Pagoda Pass and technically stepped into Myanmar. After lunch I drove along the tortuous road up to Thong Pha Phum National Park for the highlight of my entire trip – spending a night in a real Thai tree house.
Day 11 – After a wonderful nights sleep, I left my tree house and went up the road to E-Thong, another small village along the Thai-Burmese border. I got a nice breakfast at one of the cafes along the lake and then spent the majority of my day riding straight to Kampaeng Phet. This was an intense 500-600 kilometer day.
Day 12 – I drove from Kampaeng Phet into Tak province through Mae Sot and up to Tha Song Yang, an isolated region of Tak province straddling the Burmese border. The road continues further to Mae Hong Son province, but I stopped to spend the night in Tha Song Yang. Tha Song Yang is a quiet remote town in an area of Thailand without much traffic. When I went out to dinner, the people looked at me like I was the first foreigner to ever visit this place.
Day 13 – Got a local tour of Mae Usu Cave in Tha Song Yang then continued northward into Mae Hong Son province spending the night in an authentic Thai Yai home stay program at Ban Muang Pon. Ban Muang Pon was another major highlight of my trip. I spent hours talking with my host that evening and learned so much about life for many of the minority communities in Mae Hong Son Province.
Day 14 – Left Ban Muang Pon to Mae Hong Son’s provincial capital to spend sometime relaxing and eating khao soi at Khao Soi Pa Noon, a famous restaurant in Mae Hong Son. After lunch, I went into the mountains to visit my favorite place in Thailand, Pang Ung, a hidden Alpine lake and royal development project. I spent the night camping by the lake at Pang Ung.
Day 15 – Leaving Pang Ung, I traveled towards Pai stopping in the remote Shan mountain village of Mae La-Na. I spent the night at a cool guest house on a farm a little away from the village called Maelana Garden House. We didn’t have power most of the night, but it ended up working out for the best because I had a memorable traditional candle light Shan dinner at the guest house.
Day 16 – Returned to Chiang Mai for a much needed rest day. I spent some time eating at my favoriate khao soi restaurants – you can see the entire list here.
Day 16 – Traveled north to Doi Ang Khang National Park stopping at the Chiang Dao Caves on the way up. At the caves I got an awesome tour by a local elderly Thai man with a gas lantern. Very cool.
Day 17 – Doi Ang Khang was freezing for Thai standards, but after waiting for it to warm up a bit in the morning, I walked around the gardens and fruit orchards before continuing back down to Fang – a city nearby Doi Ang Khang. In Fang I stopped to eat at one of my favorite restaurants – Phumanee Home Hotel. I like this hotel/restaurant so much because it essentially acts as a non-profit organization supporting their hill tribe community far away in the mountains. The hotel is a showcase for hill tribe culture serving delicious food in the restaurant that is extremely different from normal Thai food.
Day 18 – I spent my final night in Ban Thoet Thai – a remote mountain village that up until the 1980s was completely isolated from the rest of Thailand due to lack of sealed roads. The town was a famous place because it was home to one of the largest opium warlords in Thailand due to its remote inaccessible location. I spent the night in a nice guesthouse along the river called Rim Taan Guest House. After Ban Toet Thai, I rode over to Doi Mae Salong to check out the beautiful pagoda at the top of the mountain before returning to Chiang Rai to return the bike.
Day 19 – With the bike returned, I boarded a flight to Bangkok to rest for a few nights before continuing my journey to Mauritius off the coast of Africa.
How I Rented My Bike
Renting a motorcycle in Thailand is easy and cheap. A scooter can be pretty much rented anywhere, but for bigger bikes, there are two excellent foreign-owned specialty shops in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. I personally think the shop in Chiang Rai has a little better value than the one in Chiang Mai, but regardless these two are the best places to rent.
In Chiang Rai, I rented my bike from Chiang Rai Big Bike Rentals. Not only was the bike in excellent condition, but this business lets all of its customers rent their protective gear for no additional cost. It would be foolish to go out on the roads without a proper jacket, shin guards, helmet, and gloves. CR Big Bike rentals gives these all to their customers for free. Not only that, but they also lend out GoPros for free as well. The other thing I like about this company is that they don’t put massive stickers advertising their business on the bikes. These just look so ugly, and I am glad CR Big Bike Rentals keeps their bikes looking nice.
The other major rental company is Tony’s Big Bikes in Chiang Mai. Unlike their competitor, Tony’s does not offer free protective gear (except helmets), and all their bikes are plastered with advertisements for their business. In my opinion, it would only be worth renting from Tony’s if I wanted to stay and ride around Chiang Mai otherwise its worth going up to CR Big Bike Rentals.
Motorcycle safety is a serious concern in Thailand, but generally not for the reasons many people think. I’m not an expert on motorcycle safety nor am I claiming to be, but as someone who has done some riding in Thailand, I will elaborate on my experiences and offer some general safety tips that I have unfortunately had to learn the hard way.
I’ve heard many people say before that Thai drivers are crazy, but to be honest those same people say Indian drivers are crazy, and Italian drivers are crazy, and German drivers are crazy. The list just goes on. Despite what people say, I’ve honestly found Thai drivers to be quite responsible and predictable. There are clear rules on the road and if they are followed, there won’t be any issues. Thais tend to be more overconfident in their overtaking abilities than other drivers, but besides this, I’ve found them to be quite courteous and predictable.
In my personal opinion, I actually think its safer to ride a motorcycle in Thailand than it is in my home, the United States. The reason is because there are so many more people riding in Thailand than the US so drivers tend to be more aware of their surroundings in Thailand.
Road conditions, however, are a serious issue in Northern Thailand. The mountainous terrain coupled with occasionally poor roads is a combination for disaster. The most serious safety issue, in my opinion, is riding downhill with twists and turns in the road. When going down hill, riders MUST keep their bike in low gear. They MUST go slow, and they MUST only use their front brake. A little gravel around a hairpin turn with too much speed can lead to a nasty skid. It’s happened to me before, and I’ve seen it happen to others. Going downhill is the most serious safety concern while riding. I always go slow and pay close attention to the road at all times while going downhill.
Furthermore, wet roads can be just as bad as going downhill. I would not ride my bike while it was raining unless I had no other choice. If I did ride during the rain, I went way slower than I normally would and anticipated much longer stopping time. On wet roads, it is very easy to skid out.
Before riding, I suggest taking a look at this motorcycle safety informational video. Its a bit old and cheesy, but it gives some really good advice.
Where To Stay
One big question I get asked is where I spent the night along this trip. Fortunately in Thailand, accommodation is cheap so I mostly spent the night in private rooms at guesthouses. A couple of times I stayed in hotels or hostels depending on whatever was available.
My personal favorite way to find accommodation is by using Booking.com. This website is different from other travel sites because any small guesthouse or hotel can get themselves listed online. They just need to pay a portion of their revenues to Booking.com. In Thailand there are dozens of unlisted hotels and guesthouses in every town, but recently more and more of them are getting online. I like to make bookings because it is just so convenient to have a booking and know your room will be saved especially if arriving late. I would hate to spend all day worrying that I might have to spend hours looking for a hotel at an affordable rate after a long day of riding. While its always possible to find a hotel, Booking.com guarantees that I get the cheap one reserved.
Agoda is another popular website for booking, but it is owned by Booking.com so I’ve found the listings to be pretty similar. Agoda is based out of Singapore and tends to focus more on South East Asia.
While Booking.com is quite helpful, only about half the time I was able to use them to make a reservation. The other half I was so off-the-beaten-path that I couldn’t find anything where I was going. In these cases, I used Lonely Planet’s Thailand Guidebook or just hoped to find a hotel in town. Many Thai cities have tourism bureaus with information listing all the hotels in their province. This helped me out a couple of times to find unlisted hotels.
Finally staying in national parks is another great option. It is possible to camp for cheap in any National park in Thailand, but not all parks rent out tents themselves. To see if tents were available, I would usually just call ahead to make sure before I arrived. Many national parks also have bungalows for rent, but the price varies extremely between national parks. I’ve seen some two-person bungalows for 300 bhat and other times a similar bungalow for 1,000.
What to Bring
I packed light because I knew I would need to carry everything on my bike. I normally travel with a 55L backpacking bag, but I took most of my clothes out, left them at the bike shop, and traveled with just the bare minimum. I strapped my bag to the back of my bike using bungee cords lent to me from the shop.
I really only had a couple different pairs of clothes and washed them every few days. Besides clothes, I had camera equipment, toiletries, sandals, swimsuit, and a few odds and ends.
The only thing that I probably should not have brought was my laptop. As a blogger and photographer, I wanted to be able use lightroom and write on the go, but I think the bumps from riding actually broke my laptop. It stopped working about 2/3rds of the way through the trip. I got it fixed later on in Bangkok, but the patch only lasted for a few more months. At any rate, it was an old laptop and probably would have broken some other way. Now I have a new one I had been thinking about buying regardless.
Of all my travels, this was probably the best thing I ever did. I had been wanting to make this trip ever since I got my first taste of motorcycling in Thailand by completing the Mae Hong Son loop in 2013. Now that dream had finally come to fruition.
While I had been thinking about this trip for sometime, I actually barely did any planning before. I reserved my motorbike, but outside of that I didn’t even start thinking about my route until the night before. I did this purposely because I wanted to go into everything raw. I wanted to just wander and see where the road took me.
My final thoughts are for someone thinking about doing a trip like this – just go for it. I did it with almost no planning and had the time of my life. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below. I will do be best to update this article as new questions are asked.